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During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s first poet is Kenzie Allen. 


Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Kenzie Allen: One of the things I love about poetry is that ideally it becomes a fractal. The smallest parts of it, sentence, line, word, can each be a poem. Like a good sketch, there’s space and negative space in the poem, what is depicted and what is inferred, and the drawing’s refinement upon initial impressions through revision. Poetry draws upon music, the visual, performance, and ultimately is a celebration of language. It’s also the creation of an archive, to me, a history of thought to draw upon and enter conversation with, a measurement of the time and environs, and a space of persuasion, as well, a declaration of existence and as such, also a political act.

I’m also driven by that expressiveness in terms of my culture, my tribe and larger Native community. I’m looking up to people like Roberta Hill, Ernestine Hayes, Mark Turcotte—people who have guided my steps and given me things to strive toward in language and spirit. And my other mentors along the way, Kerri Webster, Laura Kasischke, Khaled Mattawa, generous people who are also great literary citizens. I want to be around in that same fashion, and connect to my fellow generation of artists and the next. And I love being part of the publishing side, reading submissions and curating content, and connecting to new authors in the process.


FFF: What are your influences – creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

KA: I’m pretty obsessed with people. Human drive and desire, cultures and power shifts, the things we come up hard against or which propel us forward. When I draw, I draw portraits. When I shoot photographs, I center on people, or on the tiny details which reveal human presence, or on my own human gaze. I sing not simply out of a love of music but out of a love of expression—I want to feel things and I want to connect to others through that expressiveness. I think poetry can also represent a space of healing or processing as well.

I started out in anthropology, and the ethnographic mode is still something I gravitate toward in many aspects of my work. But it’s also a source of conflict (the history of Anthropology, indeed, most academia, is also a history of colonialist movement). But through that influence and lens I’m dealing with cultural conflict, colonialism and stereotype, experiences in forensic anthropology, and the estrangement of relocation.

And bars. I do write a number of poems about/in/all over bars.


FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems – as author and as reader?

KA: Words fail us. They fail to adequately impart the nature of grief, the pinnacle of joy—we’re all trying to communicate all the time but so, so often, words fail. So it’s a process of trying to get it right, or closer, all the time.

I love landscapes. But mine don’t turn out in the same way as a landscape painting would, with the saltbrush bushes leaping off the page and setting the reader in their own starkly particular corner of a town or meadow they know by heart. So maybe mine are human landscapes, cultural geographies, or memory-pinpoints. What’s important to me is story. Voice. Insider and outsider language; the peculiarities of association and what the body can and cannot tell us about where it has been and what has haunted it.

What’s cool? That shiver of perfect imagery. What I crave—for my chest to cave in and my ribs to ache, and yes, to cry. To feel things. To flinch. Dorianne Laux once said writers are sometimes described by the bystander as “unflinching,” but that in reality it is the writer’s job to flinch, to be moved by the world one witnesses, to have an emotional response and write from that space, with that sense of urgency and vulnerability. I can’t think of anything better to aspire to.


FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something – an experience, a piece of art, anything really – that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

KA: I moved to my tribe’s reservation later in my life, and integration is a slow process. When I was 15 or so, I was given an Oneida name by the woman who developed a verbal dictionary for our language, Maria Hinton (whose name was Yake yale, meaning, “She remembers”). I refer to her sometimes as “Namegiver” in my work, for that is what she was to me.

She was one of the first people outside of my family who really embraced me, who cemented my identity, who wasn’t concerned about my quantum or my having grown up elsewhere. She knew who my family was, and she had given my mother her name (at the time, my mother’s name meant “She who travels”) and confirmed that we were Turtle Clan. I sat with her and we talked and talked, and I spent time with her each time I came to Oneida, even carrying an umbrella for her during one of our Pow Wows to shield her from the sun. I was still dying my hair red, I was still learning how to undo the pressures and confusion of my upbringing away from our community, but she put me in that place of honor beside her as we walked the long circle of Grand Entry.

I told her about my life, played flute and sang for her, and then she is to dream for three days, and the spirits will bring her the name in dreams. She had all the names and their associated clans written out on little index cards by hand in her shaking script, and they’re all different, because the names don’t go back to the spirits until they are no longer being used. One day while I was visiting the box of index cards fell over and I spent the afternoon alphabetizing them. She wrote out my name in this same fashion, Yakotl’ʌ:notati, which means, “There is music as she goes along.” It felt like coming home.

I’ve gone along quite far now, from Texas to Oregon to Michigan to Norway, and I carry that music with me. My grandmother was an opera singer, and my mother was She who travels. So I carry them with me, too. And of the three clans, the Wolf clan are the path finders, or law makers, or those who guide us in living our lives as the Creator intended. The Bear clan are the keepers of the medicine. And the Turtle clan are the keepers of knowledge, the earth protectors and the storytellers. So this has become a part of my legacy, to do what I do, to create and learn and teach.


FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

KA: I was only allowed to bring one book with me given everything else I had to pack on this latest trip to Norway. I brought Stephen Dunn’s newest, Lines of Defense. He’s just one of those poets I go back to when I need to feel some comfort.


FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

KA:  :D Ahhhh!!



Kenzie Allen is a descendant of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, and she is a of Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sonora Review, The Iowa Review, Boston Review, Indiana Review, SOFTBLOW, and elsewhere, and she is the managing editor of the Anthropoid collective. Kenzie was born in West Texas and currently lives in Norway.

Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: An Anthology of Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.

A lifetime ago, I sat with some dear friends in their apartment discussing literature, music, and art as we drank wine. We gathered like this as often as we could. A small group of poets, novelists, painters, and musicians; we composed our own little salon. Elizabeth Bishop was the topic of conversation that night, and we grabbed her collected poems off the shelf. We passed it around for each person to take their turn reciting the poem “One Art” out loud. It was a marvelous time. Each brought their own voice, their own character to the poem and then uttered it forth. It was a night of joy connected through art but also a deepening insight into the subtlety of the poem itself. “One Art” is not easy to recite well. One has to be almost inspired to get it right. This is not a fault in the poem but a consequence of its precise insight and power, a result of its very success.

“One Art” was written in response to the suicide of Lota de Macedo Soares, Bishop’s longtime lover. Lota was visiting NY with Bishop, who came home one day to find Lota had taken an overdose of tranquilizers. She died several days later. The loss was devastating to Bishop. The depth of her love for Lota was profound and can be seen in Bishop’s letters. Although “One Art” does not identify the person it is about or even indicate the relationship of that person to the speaker, there is more than simply Bishop’s famed reticence in the absence of personal information. The absence is part of an overall effort to avoid the pain of loss. It is also part of why it’s not easy to recite the poem correctly. If one recites it as though every word were a mere statement of fact, it falls flat. If one recites it as though the art of losing really isn’t hard to master, then the most important part of the poem is itself lost. That’s because “One Art” is a kind of spell cast in the hope to dispel pain.

It’s fitting that this poem is made in the incantatory shape of a villanelle with its repetitions and rhymes. An incantation should be deeply lyrical and repetitive. Perhaps the music will distract the caster from the pain; perhaps the repetition will conjure belief and thus be successful. Its central hope is: if I say enough times that losing isn’t hard, maybe when I finally admit the real loss, it won’t hurt. But the overwhelming power of the poem, the source of its potency is that words are not strong enough to disperse such pain—the death of one’s most cherished person.

The speaker is shaken to the bottom of her being and does not believe a word of what she says. The pain in her refuses to be denied and rises against the utterance of the spell. To recite this poem aright, one must allow oneself to feel that pain, to feel at odds with every word you speak, desperately wanting to believe it but knowing it’s all fallacy and the pain of admitting that tenuous phrase, “even losing you,” is a shock to your foundations. It cannot and never will be easy. As you recount the ease of losing so many other things along the way: the watch, the keys, the house, rivers, a continent—each loss trying to be as big as the one you are terrified of admitting—as you recite all those other losses, the focus must be on “even losing you,” that must remain ever present in mind because every loss is about “losing you,” that one for whom all these loses are merely symbols and mean next to nothing, no matter how big they are. In addition to the failure of incantation, of words to dispel pain, this is another reason for the spell’s failure: “losing you” is not a symbol. It’s not an idea or a theme. A real living and loving person took their own life and each of the gestures and nuances of that life are gone. You can’t go out and have another made like a set of keys.

Perhaps I connect to this poem because I can picture certain people in my own past who died: my father, a coworker. I can see in my mind’s eye a particular gesture my father made: stroking his finger down his long nose and chuckling. Or I can hear that coworker’s way of articulating a particular joke he once told me—the way he arched his back and swayed his head as he uttered the punch line “Oh, baby, baby,” drawing out the a’s as though they were small hills his voice traveled over. It was unique. I can hear it and see it in my head, but I can’t imitate it to anyone because it’s not who I am. That loss is permanent. “One Art,” is an attempt to counteract the pain of the irreversible loss of that uniqueness. Of course, the attempt is doomed to failure. The same failure torments the speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale,” where the speaker wants to “cease upon the midnight with not pain.” But for him too, “the fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do.” Both poems are an effort at self-deception.

Even including Jonathan Swift’s celebrated essay, A Modest Proposal, I don’t think there is a work in literature that is a better example of irony than Bishop’s poem “One Art.” Swift’s essay is more accessible because its central emotion is outrage. None of us are afraid to feel outrage. In fact, we sometimes indulge in outrage because it makes us feel smart or better than others. We like reading A Modest Proposal for these emotional reasons as much as the literary ones. I don’t mean to slight the accomplishment of A Modest Proposal. It’s a magnificent work. But “One Art” is more complicated because it requires that we access our own vulnerability to the incredible pain of loss, a pain that is inevitable for all of us. Everyone we love is going to die. To allow ourselves to face that fact is what this poem requires. It is terribly hard. It’s easier to admire the poem’s craft and travel its surface. It’s easier to pretend it’s a stale poem because it’s written in a fixed form, that it’s boring or outdated because it rhymes or has an almost singsong music. But these are excuses or failures of our ability to face what it embraces: that “even losing you” is an art that can never be mastered. Though so simple a word as “even” in the phrase “even losing you,” is weighted with the effort to add “you” to the catalogue of easily lost things, it fails. We are forever inept before the pain of losing those we love. That pain is felt profoundly because the form of the poem endeavors to create the illusion of control. It is why that parenthetical “(Write it!)” is so tormented and desperate, a kind of emotional paradox in the conflict between the power asserted by writing and the underlying emotional impotence.

In that other lifetime, reciting “One Art,” I was probably insulated from the full blow of the pain because I was surrounded by my friends. Then, I was also younger: my father was still alive; that coworker was still alive. I had experienced death, to be sure. But every death makes all the others resonate and makes a poem like this ring, gradually over a lifetime turning a single instrument into an orchestra. Emerging from my own recital of it that night, I was immediately in the presence of my friends and our discussion of the poem’s perfections. Of course, the emotional power simmered under the words and we could all feel it and talk about it. It was like a rip current just near enough to feel its drag but not pull us out, a power that could sweep us instantly out to sea if we let ourselves be taken by it. And that is what the poem needs to be fully understood and realized. The force of it requires we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable, that open to the inevitable death of those we love. Feeling this fearful reality is part of what the poem means. Without it, it is only half a poem, and we only half comprehend it. To read it aright is to be absolutely exposed to the worst pain we are likely ever to feel.



Photo by Marco Munoz.

I always liked making things up, improvising, using my “imagination.” I do not remember my dreams because I spend the greater part of my day restructuring the past and fitting it into schemas of relationship and disrelationships, and not to any discernible end. In short, I am always in a dream. Perhaps it is the ends of art I hate–the way it is “valued” rather than integrated into the dynamic of being alive. You have to be careful saying art is for everyone because this is a sales pitch from the creativity experts and another way to make money.

Art is not for everyone. Many people are happy never to have a moment with art if they can possibly avoid it. Hell, I am happy to never have a moment with art if I can possibly avoid it. If you define art as a judgement of aesthetic value, then this is the least interesting part of the experience of making things up, improvising, and using your imagination.This is the morning after when you look at the thing you made and say: “What the hell was I thinking?” Almost everything I have ever made–songs, poems, stories, has elicited this response from its creator. I am disappointed in all but perhaps 4 poems, one story, and a couple of music compositions. I have never liked the poem of mine that is most anthologized: “Ode to Elizabeth.” I know it is the perfect “representative poem”–not my best poem, and, honestly, all it truly represents is a moment in 1980 when the chemical fires in Elizabeth, New Jersey were inspiring Time Magazine to refer to my home city as “grimy Elizabeth.” In the poem I never talk about the chemical fires, and I never argue against Elizabeth being grimy. The whole poem is an answer to one question: given that something is grimy, can it still have value–and not the value of feeling sorry for it, or wanting it to be other than it is–but the value of what no one but a consciousness that has been formed by that place can see? The poem praises Elizabeth New Jersey by saying: yes, it is grimy, and unartisitc, and full of people who have lousy taste in furniture, but I saw Amarcord there, and with a bunch of friends who had no idea about the snobby distinctions between movies and cinema, and we had a true experience of the film. We responded to it: “if art moved us at all, it was with real amazement/ we had no frame of reference.”

Art then that does not delight, move, amaze, or engage one’s most active intelligence is what I call aesthetic bureaucracy–the means that have forgotten their original ends and serve only their own process as “value.” Such art needs experts and gatekeepers, and protectors and advocates. It needs prestigious presses, and “award winning authors.” It makes me ill–not because I have been excluded from it (I have been allowed through the back door of this world, and can flash certain badges such as a New York Times articles on my poetry, featured with Allen Ginsberg, Stephen Dunn, etc) but because I never thought I was insignificant to begin with. I consider my mind, flawed as it is, to be in communion with a living God, and know that I never wrote a single poem or song, or story for “publication.”

Everything I did was out of Lordly, Godly, arrogant impulse to waste time–to spend my time making things up, and using my imagination, and scribbling on my tomb so to speak. Death is coming. it will be our only permanent accomplishment. Everything then, beyond this, is a scribbling on the tomb, a sort of ferocious, and desperate, and, yes, holy/sacramental graffiti. Everything, including how your friends remember you, is a version of “Kilroy was here.”

This personal essay then is inspired by something that happened to me recently. One of my best friends, and former students, Adam Fitzgerald, wrote “call me!” on my Facebook. So, being me, I thought something happened to him, and, being an insomniac who had just enjoyed the only two hours of sleep I was going to get, I called him. He was en route. People in Manhattan are always en route. He was with Bianca Stone and going somewhere, but he wanted me to know that Bomb magazine had said something wonderful about the chapbook we published through Monk Books by Mark Strand called Mystery and Solitude in Topeka. Great! I tried to be enthusiastic, but all I really wanted to do was Google “Long Branch, New Jersey” and remember which president died there (James Garfield). I was a little ill, and a little weary, and the book is beautiful, and the fun part was instigating it, and funding it, and watching Bianca and Adam do all the real work, and seeing the result. Affirmation of Mark Strand seemed beside the point. The guy has had his share of affirmation. I was thinking, “what about Bernadette Meyer’s chapbook, or even more importantly, Ben Pease’s chapbook, which contains one of the best and most adventurous long narrative poems I have read in years?” I was being a party pooper, a role I find myself playing with increasing frequency. On paper I should be thrilled: I am the “publisher” of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and the book I helped bring into being is being lauded by Bomb–a well known literary zine. But whatever this is, it didn’t register as deeply with me as my then urgent desire to remember that Long Branch was once the summer resort of presidents and that James Garfield went there to recover from a gun shot wound and, well, he didn’t recuperate. I attempted to imagine Long Branch then–late 19th century swimming, the anciently sudden and suddenly ancient smell of salt marsh and wave spume. It was a rude way to behave towards a friend. As Shakespeare said: “you treat comfort like cold porridge.” I behaved like my Irish relatives who, when informed that you won the Noble Peace Prize, would remind you that your cousin Pete was a state champion spoon player, and much better looking besides.

Wet blanket? Far beyond that. I realized that achievement to one who has lived all his life in loss and failure, and who has experienced more or less constant rejection, is, itself anti-climatic. The joy exists in the possibility of things–in their perhaps. Years ago, I read at an event called the Paterson Poetry Marathon. I did well, and Philip Levine, the headliner, came over to me and shook my hand and said: “I want to thank you both for your humor and your outrage.” I should have been thrilled. Instead I went into the bathroom and cried because my parents were dead and my grandmother was dead, and everyone who could have been happy for me and who I wanted to be happy for me (the people who stand and wave at you while you are going around and around on the kiddie ride) are dead. I felt desolate, destroyed. So-called success seemed to have all the flavor of cardboard. If no one had come up to me, it would have been worse, of course, but I realized the losses and years of being a tool grinder on the night shift had rendered me incapable of being achievement-oriented. I am possibility-oriented, doing-the-deed-oriented. While I am reading or writing, or playing a piano, all is possible. After that, it’s hard to take anything seriously. If I had to think of truly meaningful moments in my life as a so called artist, they’d be some of the following.

The last time Joe Salerno came over my apartment in Elizabeth with a mixed cassette tape of music he had been recently excited by: it was truly mixed–Hadyn, Mozart, and Charles Ives. We drank saki and talked about music for hours. Joe liked trees the way I did, and I took him drunk and a little unsteady up the block to show him a full grown American Elm (rare after the dutch elms disease of the 40s). I didn’t know it, but the city had cut the tree down that morning. There was only the stump. We held our glasses full of saki. We reflected like two grown men standing over a blown engine. “Well,” I said, “there’s the stump!” We laughed. Joe reminded me of the great Chinese poem in which the poets get drunk and go into the garden to admire the flowers and the flowers lament that they have gone to all that trouble of blooming to be admired by a bunch of drunks. He quoted the poem. We laughed some more. Joe was dying of lung cancer, but he had not yet been diagnosed. Six months later he was dead, and I played that mixed tape for years until it felt apart. The possibility of talking music and poetry late into the night with a friend and neither of you are talking about the art business… that has meaning. It is the not graffiti on the grave. It is the eternity hidden in transience–what Keats best expressed.

Back in 1988: Dave Roskos and I are in Manhattan placing our new magazines Big Hammer and Black Swan in a book store. It may have been St. Mark’s books. Anyway, Gregory Corso is in there talking with the manager, and he’s pretending not to be Gregory Corso, and we’re pretending not to know he’s Gregory Corso, and he leafs through our magazines and says: “I don’t know these guys… Wait, I heard of Keith Sheppard.” He reads the poem by Sheppard. “Not bad,” he says. We place the magazines on consignment and split into the hot summer’s afternoon and we are laughing because Keith Sheppard is one of my aliases, and I am new to the poetry scene and have filled one quarter of my first issue with poems I wrote under aliases (including a nun who is an expert on Hopkins and George Herbert). We have good Mexican food, and meet up with my painter friend Elieen Doster who has hair the color of new pennies. Great day–again, nothing to do with achievement, but with possibility.

1985: I’m with my friend Marco Munoz in a long defunct art gallery called Oroe Electric in Hoboken. The clarinetist Perry Robinson is playing with his father, Earl Robinson, winner of an academy award, and a man who played with Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and whose songs were performed by Paul Robeson and Frank Sinatra. Earl is an old radical and union man and calls me brother when he finds out I’m a tool grinder on the night shift. The party after the event hosted by Susan Shafton, includes a lot of wonderful musicians, including Gary Schneider, conductor of the Hoboken Symphony Orchestra. I am young and arrogant and happy and drunk enough to play piano among them, and sing my songs, and Perry joins in, and Gary likes the way I play piano, and Earl shakes my hand and beams. No hierarchy, none of that stupid, God forsaken, spiritually bankrupt pecking order we call “The arts.” We play for hours–folk music, atonal music, hard bop, weird mongrel versions of all of the above. I am dressed in a cool suit and so is Marco who scats happily along. Joy, art. Not “the arts.” I hate “the arts.” It takes all the fun out of things.

1977: The year my mom died. My friend Huey is over my house, and I am playing a song I wrote. I hear blubbering, and I look over and Huey is crying–this big, good looking jock. he says: “that’s beautiful.” I never had a friend say that to me before. where I come from, it takes great courage and a good heart to say such things openly. 34 years later, it means more to me than getting nominated for Pushcarts. You can put Pushcarts on a curriculum vitae, but its not what makes you create. If it is, then you’re pretty fucking pathetic. Nothing is more pathetic than someone who achieves and is not alive except for their achievements. Such a person is a slave to the wrong master. It is terrible when no one appreciates your art or wants to hear or see or recognize it. It is more horrible when that’s all that matters.

1999: my first year as an instructor at arts high. The students don’t want the class to end and I teach a summer program (for free) in a wonderful place called Rutgers gardens. There are kids playing guitars, and writing poems, and hiking through cedar and bamboo forests, and I am not making a dime, and they are not getting a grade, and everyone shows up every Thursday for no other reason than we are making shit up as we go along, and enjoying the energy of making shit up as we go along. The next year, I have forty kids in the woods–Adam Fitzgerald being one of them. My former friend’s son, Danny Salerno comes by to visit and recites Beowulf in the Anglo Saxon and the girls (and probably some of the boys) all swoon because he is good looking. Later, at the pizza joint we repair to after working on being artists, Danny and Adam get into a huge fight over whether Falstaff or Hamlet is the greater character, and they almost come to blows. I am not there since I have to go to my 4 to 12 shift job in the factory, but I hear about it from the other students, and I am delighted. What teacher would not want 17 year old students almost coming to blows over Falstaff and Hamlet?

I am not knocking people who are achievement oriented. I wish I could feel proud of anything I achieve. I can’t. Even if I won awards, and became a “living legend,” I’d still be short and balding, and full of the griefs I experienced, and I’d still be most excited by a chord progression I accidentally stumbled upon. I’d still miss the people who died and who I loved–which is almost everyone I ever loved. The best thing about being famous would be the money. I’d blow most of it on instruments and art projects, and taking my wife out to eat. I’d give money to artists I thought were unrecognized, and I’d be able to shit on the heads of all the so called big shots who snubbed me over the years. Being “snubbed” is part of “the arts.” I hate the fucking arts. I love the possibility of 40 young people in a field fucking around with paints and guitars. Maybe only one of them becomes well known, but it took all forty to create that one well known artist. Desire is never isolated.

Three years after I started teaching the summer program, the school made it official and put it in doors, with air conditioning, and ruined the integration of painting and poetry and music, and put each in its proper hole. They had the best intentions. I hate intentions. I had only one–to waste time. I was teaching my students how to hang out. Who the fuck died and left the experts to decide what is significant or worthwhile? If no one invites you to the party, throw your own and fuck them! This is what I was teaching. I was trying to teach my students the necessary arrogance of art, and its humility. The humility is this: nothing will ever feel as good as actually doing it–not awards, not achievements, not anything that results from doing it–nothing, and if the other things begin to take precedence, you are in danger. I hate “the arts.” Right now, I wish I knew a good cello player, and one who could wing it, and they’d come over and play with me for a couple hours. Sometimes, while I’m playing the piano, I can hear the cellist beside me playing other riffs. I get excited and I start to dream of the possibility. if a real cellist came over they would want to work towards a goal. A truly accomplished cellist would probably snub me, so a half-assed cellist would do just as well. As my grandmother said: If the picture is crooked, and you can’t adjust it, adjust your head.” My standards are low. A 17 year old student so passionate about Shakespeare that he takes on a 22 year old guy who can speak Anglo-Saxon is as exciting to me as Bomb magazine praising a book I was involved with. Whenever that isn’t true, I begin to feel spiritually sick inside. So my apologies to Adam. What really thrills me is that I knew Adam when he chewed key chains incessantly and played Visions of Johanna 20 times a day. I am happy to see him flourish. It’s like being a parent and watching your kid go around and around on a ride and, suddenly, you realize he isn’t a kid, and he’s calling you up when you’re ill and tired and lonely for a world that was not all fucking achievements and kudos and you ought to wave–even if you’re half dead. I feel more than half dead. Possibility is hard to come by, especially when everything is to a purpose. I believe in wasting time. I am trapped in a goal-oriented, sick America of insane positive thinking and achievement psychosis… someone get me a half-assed cellist. Quick! Someone get me a park and 40 young artists wasting time. I love making stuff, writing, composing, fucking around with my garden. I hate “the arts.”

So I’m reading, and very much enjoying Ray Hammond’s Poetic Amusement, his masters thesis on the influence of po’biz amid writing programs on American poetry. When I read, I interact with a text, start scribbling my own argument for or against, maybe write a didactic sonnet, or trounce about my house looking for other books that seem pertinent. In chapter 4, Hammond writes about the muse, how the muses have been put on the shelf and replaced by workhop craft. I’m enjoying it because no one speaks about the primal condition of poetry being the ability to “receive” from outside one’s ego, and even one’s consciousness–to be stupid. Stupidity, in its old sense “stupere” means to be stupefied, stunned, left with your mouth agape, and, lo and behold, Hammond quotes Levertov on the original definition of Muse:

To contemplate comes from ‘templum, temple, a place, a space for observation marked by an augur.’ It means not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is ‘to keep the mind in a state of contemplation.’ Its synonym is ‘to muse’ and to muse means ‘to stand with open mouth’–not so comical if we think of inspiration–to breathe in.

Being stunned out of one’s normal thought, to enter a state of ecstasy, to be made “stupid” (stupere–gape mouthed), awed by that which inspirits you is not so uncommon. Watch a child totally absorbed in drawing or coloring, his or her tongue hanging out, oblivious to his surroundings,and you’ll get a more precise sense of the alpha wave state the mind enters upon being truly engaged with any task or action calling for a forgetting of one’s self in a moment of concentration/contemplation. This takes place in “ground set apart”–in privacy, in solitude, in the midst of noise one has learned to tune out. The “god” is present in both the ground set apart (templum) and in the act being performed there. This is what I mean by presence, and so, for me, each genuine poem is a templum, a ground set apart, and we must enter it in a state of unknowing, of “stupidity” in its most ancient sense so that the “muse” may enter us.

All this might sound like spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but it is not outside what scientists have recently come to know, especially in neuroscience. Creativity does not come from our usual cognitive faculties (though our cognitive faculties help shape it as it comes forth). Its initial neural twitch takes place in what Robert Bly called the “lizard” brain, and what neurologists call the “affective brain”–the brain functions we share with other animals, especially primates: playing, seeking, caring, etc. It comes from a much more primal, animal sense of the spirit–a shaman’s flight over the houses, a forgetting of one’s own cleverness and benevolent fascism over the text at hand. We need time to waste, time to be outside our usual heads. Plato, who is still at the center of Western thought, agreed poets “received” their poems from gods (demons). This was exactly why he didn’t want them in the republic: because their thoughts, their compositions, though often more wise and profound than philosophy, had no systematic ground of order. If Plato came back today and saw the workshop, craft obsessed nature of poetics, he’d give his approval, but not for reasons poets might like: Plato would approve because the stupidity of inspiration has been removed from the writing of poems. We do not enter a temple and enter contemplation (mind free mindfulness) in the presence of a god, and, if this should happen, we revise the god out of the poem by work shopping it to death. Revision has its place, but it does not have pride of place. I submit that all poets should strive for bringing forth a presence. Anyway:

I never write from an idea unless the idea has started writing me. This morning, reading Hammond, I decided to write a sonnet playing with the concept of musing, of luring the muse through an act of contemplation. In the sonnet, the narrator of the poem stares into a ditch where a frog is sticking out his tongue to catch a fly. He loses himself in contemplating the ditch, forgets the social order, and makes a didactic plea for “staring” as a form of inspiration–just staring. I chose to write this in sonnet form because I was not trying to write a poem–contemporary or otherwise. I was trying to create a space (the sonnet form is the space) in which to versify everything I just said above. Form for me is a room to muse in–not a prison. I do not consider this a poem, but a piece of didactic verse. I had fun seeing if I could suspend the pay off of the sentence until the volta. What a way to have fun! You know I’m getting old. Anyway, consider it my coloring book while my tongue was hanging out:

Muse (Didactic Sonnet Number One)

To muse for a long hour on this ditch
in which a frog unfurls his froggy tongue
to haul the fly in, and the poor, the rich
the good, the bad, are, by the church bells, rung
(ding-dong! Goodbye!) into sweet disaray
so that you soon forget the social strain,
and press your eye against the pickerel weed
beyond all thought, though sunlight yields to rain:
this be the workshop then, of gods and time.
This be the meter–rhythms slow or quick
that stare and stare, till ditch and stare commune,
until the eye becomes a frog that flicks,
this ancient tongue which lures what it has sought:
the muse–this fly of musing–beyond thought.

Carl Jung’s work on introverted and extroverted personality types based on four functions of thinking/feeling (the rational) and intuition/sensation (the irrational) has been modified by various experts in relational dynamics, most especially Meyers Briggs and its various off shoots. Some sort of personality test is now administered by businesses interested in relational dynamics and team productivity” Active listeners, North thinkers, Explorers, negotiators…all these terms used by education and corporate movements are meant to gauge the mechanisms of personality by which we see, move through, and relate to the world. It is nothing new. Shakespeare and other dramatists used the four humors in their construction of characters. Astrology links the personality types to stars, dates, location and time of birth. All these systems of gauging personality types are inexact, what we might call, if we used a machinist’s term, an “eye ball estimate.”  But, as such, they can be useful for entering constructs. Eye ball estimates are dangerous if you are doing close work, but, if you are first entering a structure (and relational dynamics are a structure) it might be a foolish waste of time not to do a quick eye ball estimate of the work at hand. Our mistakes are most egregious when we confuse a useful inaccuracy (an eye ball estimate) for a true measure, but it may be equally dangerous not to use our gut  instincts (sensations) or intuitions when approaching or apprehending a structure.  We must not think of personality types then as a determinate, but as a good eye ball estimate of how a certain type might relate to the world. To use a designation from Meyers Briggs, no two ENFP’s (Intuitive extrovert feeling Perceivers) are alike, though they share many tendencies toward, and certain affinities for how they view and relate to the world.. To wax Machinist again, they are all “specialty molds” under a certain type of mold set–modifications of a type.

For the purpose of studying a poem through the four function, we are going to add to these types, the Bentham’s dislogistic, neutral, and laudatory register of terms. We are also going to look at contemporary literature as favoring those types most often associated with intuition, or introverted sensing (which, as a function seems very much like intuition). If we considered postmodernism as a personality type, we might see its basic personality as intuitive introvert thinking perceiver (INTP) with INTJ ( Intuitive introvert thinking/judge) being a close second. INTP,  types dominate–both in science as well as post modernist literature (this makes sense given the process and system driven dynamics of both) Post structuralism might further be seen as a movement away from the intuitive introverted feeling Perceiver (the idealist introverted feeling type) and the INFJ (feeling judge) which dominated the early aesthetic periods of modernism. INFJ’s, supposedly the rarest personality type in our population, are common in my writing classes, as are INFP’s and ENFP’s. My university still values the lyrical narrative, which relies on the feeling faculty, which allows for the feeling and is not prone to postmodernist detachment, but, of the two students I had accepted into Columbia and the New School (both favoring a sort of New York school/post modernist/experimental aesthetic) both students were thinking types, INTP, and INTJ. Feeling as a rational function has been greatly reduced in post structuralist poetics, while thinking, as the filter for intuition (both extroverted and introverted) has been raised to the chief mechanism through which irrational  functions of sensation and intuition are expressed. Let’s run the registers of post modernity in relation to the feeling function:

Dislogistic:  tending towards sociopathy, dadaism, insanity, nihilism, alienation.
Neutral: tending towards the Non-conformist, free spirited, ironic, agnostic, and favoring uncertainty, unsentimental feeling toward  engagement with form and experiment.
Laudatory: Liberated, self realized, spiritual rather than religious, emotionally complex, but not dependent on the feeling faculty, and oriented toward formal innovation.

This movement towards the domination of the irrational functions existed in romanticism and the decadent/aesthetic movements, but their chief filter as to the irrational functions of intuition and sensing moved from feeling (sensibility) to thinking (realism). First feeling in an ever more complex ambiguity dominated as the chief subsidiary function. Now, thinking as system/process dynamic dominates (Post-modernity). If I had to tie this schema of relational dynamics into one broad look at literary history, I would do so as follows:

Before Modernism: Either the feeling or thinking (rational functions) dominate with sensing and intuition (the irrational functions) acting as the chief filtering mechanisms in terms through which image and metaphorical invention play out the agreed upon tropes of thought/feeling. This made for a literature in which feeling is more or less uniform, and thinking also uniform in terms of the audience and auditor: fellow feeling, fellow thinking. The co-ordinates of thought and feeling were largely “understood.” Sensation and intuition moved through images and rhetorical schemas that  expressed known tropes of feeling/thinking. Their diversity increased as the commonly agreed upon feelings and thoughts become less stable. By the time of the Romantics, the interest in the Gothic (a genre of literature in which sensation and intuition begin to dominate thought and feeling) and the break down of the agrarian life under the terms of urbanization and industrialization lead to a reversal of functions: Sensing and intuition begin to dominate (Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud) and thoughts and feelings turn towards becoming supporting mechanisms, filtering the discoveries and creations of the irrational sensing or intuitive functions into the forms of symbolist, imagist, surrealist, cubist, dadaist, objectivist, and, most recently, language poetry. In any of these schools, either feeling or thought could be the prime secondary function, but with language poetry and its objectivist forebearers, all feeling becomes suspect as a reliable filter, and thought becomes the prime secondary function for intuition and the sensation of process. In terms of intuition, the rise of the subjective, the unconscious, and the surreal. In terms of sensation, the null position of science which claims to have no eye ball estimates, no preconceived thoughts and feelings toward the sensual world, but only the scientific method by which it tests all things under the rule of deductive process. In terms of poetry Oppen called it “A rigorous test of sincerity.”

The opposition of intuition/sensation to thought/feeling

Scientists have little trouble admitting much discovery is made through intuition, but they are loathe to admit that feeling or thinking (in terms of preconceived assumptions and notions) has anything to do with the discoveries of science. Nothing that cannot be proven through scientific and controlled experiment is considered to be valid. The position on thought and feeling is a null position.All must be testable under the laws of method. This may seem the opposite of intuition, and, to a degree, it is, but its antipathy is more towards preconceived thoughts and feelings than toward the irrational function of intuition. We tend to think of science as “rational” but this is an over identification of the word rational with objective thinking which is the populist view of science (which, by the way, is not at all scientific). Intuition also shows more antipathy towards feeling/thought as prime functions than toward sensation. We might describe modernism then as a slow movement away from the dominance of thought/feeling with an agreed upon set of contexts toward the dominance of intuition/sensation, with no agreed upon context.

During the transition period of this shift, fear, neurosis, a sense of doom and emptiness begin to dominate. There is no set context for one’s thoughts, feelings, or actions, and where there is a context, it usually appears in the form of parodying, deconstructing, or dismantling older, once stable beliefs, images, and metaphors. Oddly, God gets jettisoned from the world around the time intuition and sensation begin to dominate. God after all is best understood in societal terms as contextual authority, the context of all authority. The chief expression of God is through the dominating and rational functions of thought/feeling. God in this sense is antithetical both to sensation and intuition. It is not the authority, or power, or even arbitrary power that an intuition/sensation based literature protests in traditional beliefs in God, but, rather the grounding in a context of authority, power, and arbitrary power known as God that can not allow either for verifiable science, or the undogmatic mysteries of intuition. Mystics, to an extent, were always dangerous to God in this contextual sense. The operative word is agreed upon “context.” In a sense we could see modernism as an attempt to wrestle arbitrary power away from the overly contextualized scene, from agreed upon contexts, or ground of “God”, and not only God, but all previously agreed upon contexts–especially as God is expressed through preordained contexts of thought/feeling. Rather than seeing the old literature as believing in God, or proceeding from a context of belief, we could re-phrase it this way: Pre-modernist literature: God equals the context of the given. Modernist: God equals an “away from” or a “toward” the context of the uncertain.  All must be grounded in having no ground. God is either too late or too early, missing over here or there, but never of this moment or of this place. To paraphrase Kafka: the messiah will arrive the day after he is no longer necessary. God is either arriving or receding, and so God cannot be the context of either intuition or sensation. God exists then only in the subsidiary functions of thought/feeling. Yet God’s attributes: power, arbitrary power, not only continue through modernism and post-modernism, but grow in proportion to the fact that there is no longer an agreed upon context or locality. Thus God’s absence in the form of a non-contextual and all pervading power is everywhere (see Kafka, see Panopticon). In a sense, while God disappears, the power, especially the irrational and arbitrary power of God through intuition and sensation is distilled into all places and situations.While thought and feeling may no longer proceed on the given contexts of a dogma, the arbitrary power grows in direct proportion to losing its chief name/context.  In this sense, the atrophy of God’s name and context leads to a hypertrophy of those powers usually associated with God:

Dislogistic: totalitarian forms of regime and the literary movements drawn to them (Futurists, Pound and Eliot, Communist writers).
Neutral: belief in social reforms and systems of redistribution that replace God’s providence, mercy towards the poor, and sense of equality within organized and supposedly non-arbitrary forms of governmental “providence” (social programs, the dole, unemployment, welfare, health care, etc)
Laudatory: Self actualized and evolved human beings (the hipsters and life style leftists) who need no power in heaven to live with compassion and wisdom upon the earth.

Let us look at this in terms of the irrational functions as independent from a rationalized deity/ contextual schema of agreed upon thoughts/feelings:

In Terms of the Intuitive:

1. Spirituality, belief in the supernatural, powers beyond the  so called natural laws but with little or no dogma (though often elaborate methodology) opposed to rational religion. Mechanisms of discovery independent both of dogma and scientific method. To a certain degree,part of the rigor of magic, but without the agreed upon communal contexts of magic. Private and subjective ceremonies rather than social ones.
2. Re-location of the context for such power in the “Self” or in the self’s “communion” with forces in the terms of a visions quest, and self-created self (lifestyle) and expressed through myth (the primal) and futuristic speculations, as well as a sense of the present anchored in certain mechanisms of “mindfulness and “attention”. Many of these mechanisms are borrowed from Eastern forms of Yoga, meditation, and the practice of manipulating energy (most often one’s own energy, or the energy of nature rather than other human beings).
3. Improvisation as a way of trusting seeming chaos as a more complex form or of order.

In terms of sensation:

Positivism in all its variations as progress, as “learning experience” as self-experimenting, as mind/body balance. Nutrition, aerobic perfection, and the belief in sensation for its own sake or as a mind altering experience. The manipulation of matter as a mechanism for well being: drugs, altered states, body-engineering, the mind as neural re-mapping. Any physical sensation made optimal or toward the optimal, and, when in context with a non-physical or metaphysical concept, the transformation of such a concept to the realm of the meta-biological.

We might see recent developments in post structuralism as the extension of “against a contextualized and localized deity” to all power structures–a destabilizing and deconstructing of the language of discourse itself. Feeling and thinking are functions of discourse. They imply rational choice. Sensation and intuition lose their power when they enter too deeply into discourse (having to be filtered through feeling/thought as subsidiary functions) and can best maintain power through mystification, non-cognitive abstraction, or hypertrophic resorts to process (ceremonies, rituals, routines); the medium as message, paint as paint, poem as thing made out of words. This is the question: is this extension against contextualized structures of power, an attack on power itself, or merely a more elaborate terministic screen of order (fractal and chaotic order) with the unconscious purpose of hiding the arbitrary power under the terms of sheer process? In effect, a movement from “I” and “We”  to “it says so.” In the shift of filtering mechanisms from the nuanced feeling states of catharsis, and epiphany (the chief subjective states) to a realm where sincerity and rigor of methodology become disassociated from coherent feeling/thinking states, intuition and sensation become the highest “virtues.” Self consciousness is often, under this dominance of the irrational functions, a playing with tropes of self as mechanism (meta-fictions). The self becomes a fabrication, the other a fabrication, and the relationship between them is seen at a remove from emotion towards the filtering  mechanism of thought. In effect, introverted or extroverted intuition/sensation as dominating functions with thinking as the secondary function and feeling in a tertiary or inferior position. If the intuition is introverted, the thought will be extroverted, seeking, in however difficult a way to make the intuitions of the subconscious articulate through some sense of system, usually a complex system that is fractal in its particulars. This system will not be applied as with an ENTP, but will be more along the lines of an interpretive schema of process and ceremony, “pure system”–more the tendency of the INTP.

I think it important to remind the reader here that this is an eye ball assessment of tendencies, and that giving any literary era a personality is not much different than saying the wind whispers. It’s a personification, an attributing of human motives to inhuman things, but this does not rule out its usefulness. I want to look at what I consider a poem in a transitional phase between late romanticism/realism, and modernism, a poem that emphasizes intuition and sensation, and places thought/feeling in subsidiary positions: “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.” Before I do, I want to make a distinction between emotion and feeling, as well as thought and idea. Emotions and ideas may belong as much to the realm of the irrational and the sensational as intuition and sensation. An emotion  turns up, unbidden, and we may not know we are “feeling it” until we say: “I feel sad (the judging, interpretive, rational function). The judgment may be wrong as when a person attracted to another feels they are terrified (the hormonal relationship between fear and certain forms of attraction are well documented). Feeling and thought then are judgment functions. They rationalize to affirm or refute an emotion or idea, and to express sensations and intuitions.. We decide. We will. Perhaps it would be better then to call intuition/sensation undetermined functions, and feeling/thought acts of will. Knowing this might serve us in entering this great poem.

The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

Eliot first wrote Prufrock in 1909 (though I do not trust Eliot in this respect anymore than I trust Coleridge, and it would suit his purpose to say he wrote the poem in 1909 in order to escape the charge of being in the midst of the modernist revolution. Eliot would much prefer not to be in any midst). As the case may be, it was published in 1917, and is part of the modernist movement that precedes and presages the dadaist/nihilist slant modernism took after world war one. It is a frightening and grotesque poem, but no more so than “The Walrus and The Carpenter” or the opening of Dickens’ Bleak House (I think Elliot’s famous fog owes something to Dickens’ Fog in  Bleak House). Much has been made of his innovations in rhyme and meter, but they are not innovations. The off-meters of Prufrock are taken from many precedents of the time, one being the off-meters of light verse, and nonsense verse, as well as a poet who does not get enough credit for being a goad to Eliot: Vachel Lindsey. Lindsey was also from St. Louis and far more famous at the time than Eliot could ever hope to be. Like Eliot, he believed in the primal, and atavistic rhythms that might be found in metrical experiment. His poem “The Congo” was a performance piece that now seems rather naive and dated (as well as unintentionally racist), Lindsey became famous for performing it. His tendency to perform put him in the camp with Sandburg, and it was the Sandburg’s and Lindsey’s of American poetry that Pound, Eliot, and the modernists replaced. We might see this as two possible roads that diverged in a wood. American poets chose the road less taken called modernism, and it made all the difference. Had they taken the road of Lindsey and Sandburg, American poetry may have ended up linked to music and spken word much sooner. More on that at another time. Like Eliot, Lindsey screwed around with sonic and metrical effects obsessively. Some teachers might stress the irony of this poem, its implied attack on the enervated posturings of the vapid and superfluous modern day “Hamlet.” I am more interested in the absence of feeling and thought in the poem. Sensation seems to be the order of the day here, yet sensation denuded of will, and based partially on paralysis.  terms that might prove useful here: Phatic language (In Eliot’s case, Phatic allusion), neurasthenia (Made popular, and at a fever pitch in the early 20 th century, with sanotariums all over Scotland and England for its treatment. Elliot’s wife was diagnosed as having it). The symptoms fit the tenor of Prufrock’s twitchiness), Bovarysme (neurasthenia and Bovarysme are favorite terms of Eliot–not me) and what I call pathetic troth (The attempt to woo by appealing to another’s sense of pity, either by saying self denigrating things about one’s person, or saying that the world is sad, so let’s get it on. “Carpe diem” is a more vigorous form of pathetic troth).

So let’s put these terms together: Phatic Language (allusion), neurasthenia, bovarysme and pathetic troth.

Phatic language (From the Penguin dictionary of literary terms and Literary theory):

Phatic derives from the Greek phasis, ‘utterance.’ A term in linguistics which derives from the phrase ‘phatic communion invented by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. It was applied to language used for establishing an atmosphere and the communication of feelings rather than of ideas, and of logical and rational thoughts. Phatic words and phrases have been called ‘idiot salutations” and, when, they generate to a form of dialogue, ‘two-stroke conversations.’  It seems that the term may also be applied to the kind of noises that a mother makes to her baby, a lover to his mistress, and a master to his dog.

By phatic allusion, Elliot sets an atmosphere in contrast to Prufrock’s paralysis of action. If this is a love poem, it is a love poem that constantly deconstructs itself and never gets to the point, which makes it a species of “pure courtship” (pure in the sense that it serves no utiliatrian end other than its utterance), Eliot alludes to several poems of courtship, namely Andrew Marvel’s “To A Coy Mistress.”

“To squeeze the universe into a ball, and roll it towards some overwhelming question.”

Marvell’s poem gets to the point by pussy footing all around the point and then zeroing in for the kill: listen, we are going to die, we don’t have much time, let’s get it on (“Carpe Diem”–cease the day). Prufrock says: Indeed, there will be time.” This both deconstructs the “Carpe Diem” idea of time being of the essence, and is a form of phatic appeal: “we can wait, do we really need to draw the moment to its crisis? Come on. We have time. Indeed, we have time for indicisions and revisions until the taking of toast and tea…. Prufrock is, in part, a travesty and deconstruction of the idea of carpe diem, but it uses and misuses the devices of carpe diem in order to show that such pathetic appeal to action has become phatic–an idiot’s game of fellow feeling. This device of phatic allusion is a major part of Elliot’s schtick. His allusions are meant as much to deflate the force of literary history as to bring it to bear. “there will be time” is also an allusion to the Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow speech in Macbeth:

There would have been time for words such as these:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
creeps in its petty pace from day to day…

The communion Eliot would engender here is to contrast his indecisive hero to the “Coy Mistress” of Marvell. Where once the love object was coy, the so called lover is coy, hemming and hawing. His other phatic repetitions:

In the room the women come and go,
Talking of Michelangelo.

Do I dare? (eat a peach, disturb the universe).

The section in the poem where Prufrock imagines others noting his bald spot, his thinning hair, his thinning legs–all a species of phatic chit chat, and the fellow feeling of casual remark. Something on the order of this sort of conversation:

“Meg! Meg Darling! How wonderful to see you! OH look what you’ve done with your hair!”
“Do you like it?”
“Like it? I love it! It’s, it’s amazing how good you look. How is John?”
“John got the promotion.”
“Oh my God! That’s wonderful! I can’t think of any one who deserves it more… and you… are you happy?”
“I can’t complain… I saw Marcy Wentworth yesterday… poor girl… the divorce seems to have sent her into a tailspin.”
“I know… Oh my God, did you see how much weight she’s gained?”
“Anti-depressants… you really need a hundred yoga classes for every pill… I bet that’s it… she looks terrible… poor Marcy, and her hair looks like it’s falling out.”
“It does seem a bit thin… My daughter Lisa lost all the weight she gained during her pregnancy. My God, what I wouldn’t give to be 22 and able to lose weight like that.”
“Isn’t that the truth… listen I have to run… is your number still the same?
“I’ll give you a call. We have to catch up.”
“Let’s do that.”
“We will I promise… well, good seeing you.”
”You, too.” (air kiss).

Eliot, by juxtaposing his chit chatting, nervous, twittery Prufrock against the allusions to Marvel, to Shakespeare, to the idea of “Carpe Diem,” implies that all of history has been made phatic and, largely beside the point. The social observances and pleasantries that once held society together have become forms of insanity, the inability to say what one really means, the inability to act (do I dare) have denuded feeling and thought of all substance. Michelangelo is a subject of idle chit chat for women in a room. We might do well to see how Elliot juxtaposes allusion against the Phatic and frantic questions Prufrock poses. There is a great deal of frantic questioning, and refelction, but nothing, absolutely nothing happens, as with the Rabbit in Lewis Carol’s work: “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date. No time to waste, hello, goodbye, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late:”

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”

As Molinowski said, this is not language come forth out of logic, or a rational schema of thought, but language meant to create an atmosphere of fellow feeling (or to mock fellow feeling), also of fear, and disassembling, of timidity, and nervous enervation. The train of thought is inward, and in some sense, Prufrock’s conjectures are as stream of consciousness as Molly Bloom’s meanderings. There are repetitions galore, verbal ticks that come and go as randomly as the women in the room talking of Michelangelo. Sensation (there is much made of the fog, of the tea and marmalade, of the city streets)and intuition (in the form of somewhat hysterical conjectures) prevails and the thoughts and feelings  serve the enervated sensation and the intuitions. This is a poem written in transition between agreed upon feelings and thoughts, and their collapse. It is pastiche, but pastiche that laments– that pines for a significance both the narrator and his creator are convinced has been lost. No one can say what they mean, because meaning itself is lost: “that is not what I meant at all.”

As I said, Postmodernist question the validity of all discourse, and here, in Elliot, the deconstruction of relationship and discourse is already prevailing. Instead of making a bridge between the present and the past, Elliot lets them sit side by side, each oddly ridiculous in the light of the other, a cohabitation which shows as much about their disparity as their connection. Eliot is a master of non-sequitor. The use of parataxis (one thing after another, without conjunctions, without priority or relation to order), the use of  something akin to non-sequitor (a phrase or an allusion just thrown in), the deconstruction of formerly poetic images (Evening is a patient etherized upon a table), all of these tricks will become standard fair for modernist and post modernist poets. And we may know the dissenters from this school by their hatred of allusion, and disconnection. Thought in this poem becomes, in the sense of Flaubert, an inventory of received ideas. Feeling becomes “oh dear me what shall become of me?” and enervation as to any decisive action. The most animate forces in the poem, the forces that act at all are inhuman. The fog is far more lively and humanly active than Prufrock: it licks, rubs, lingers, slips and sleeps, as does the smoke. Streets follow. The afternoon sleeps, stretches on the floor, malingers. Personification swells to the size of a supernova while human action is all conjectural. As with introverted sensation the world of the senses is alive and threatening to swamp consciousness. The unconscious life of the natural world is projected on to the subconscious sensations of the introverted. The fog that is so active at the beginning of Prufrock echoes another equally famous, lively and surreal fog in Dickens’ Bleak House, a novel about a generations long law suit that goes nowhere–a suit, a courtship, a troth that sinks into the bureaucracy of its own process and leaves nothing in its wake. So much for both the phatic allusions, and the use of phatic utterance. Let’s move to neurasthenia.

This was one of Elliot’s favorite words to describe his age, and a very popular buzzword at the time. First coined in 1869, it had become as pervasive a diagnosis by the turn of the century as ADHD, OCD, or depression is now. One of the pet names for it was “Americanitus”:

Americans were supposed to be particularly prone to neurasthenia, which resulted in the nickname “Americanitis” (popularized by William James). Today, the condition is still commonly diagnosed in Asia. (Wikepedia)

The symptoms of neurasthenia were exhaustion of the central nervous system’s energy reserves brought on, Beard believed, by modern civilization–particularly the urban industrial experience. It was associated with upper or upper middle class people, especially professionals with sedentary employment. Listlessness, fatigue, nervous exhaustion (a lot of fretting but no action), a lack of will. Freud (I love this guy) thought that it might be attributed to excessive masturbation. It’s chief symptom was fatigue, listlessness. Elliot used it in a more broad metaphorical sense for the lack of significant action or will power in his age. French languor and enui were fairly common literary conceits by the time, and Prufrock owes a debt to this sort of tired, and flatulent sense of superfluous and weary via the Symbolists. All sensation becomes introverted. One receives sensations, dwells in them, but is powerless to act upon them. Neurasthenia would give way to an almost violent despair by the time Elliot wrote The Wasteland.


Madame Bovary dreams of perfect romantic feeling states, and more so, dwells in an inner realm of hyper sensations which are more and more fantastic and hysterical as she heads towards her ruin. She is close to sociopathic in her quest for higher transports, and, in all situations where real love is called for (her child, her husband) she is cruelly indifferent and even hostile. Bovary wants what is promised in romance novels. Her name becomes associated with people who saw life as a series of scenarios. Here, in Prufrock’s conjectures about the immediate and less immediate future, we find the hero of the poem imagining himself a pair of claws scuttling alone the sea bottom. He projects himself into old age where he will wear his trousers rolled. He imagines what people are thinking of him. He puts himself into several imaginary situations, and then retreats from any real action. Unlike Madame Bovary, he does not act on his fantasies, attempting to make them come true. He is content to let them pass before his mind’s eye:

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen

In modern terms, we have all become voyeurs of the real. We do not participate. We live in our imaginations and fantasies. Real life is too overwhelming. The mermaids cannot drown us, but “human voices wake us, and we drown.”

Pathetic troth

In all courtship, the lover is beneath the beloved in terms of worthiness, in terms of desirability, and, when this is not literally true, it is true in a tongue and cheek way, or the poet feigns subservience. So all courtship poems are, to a certain degree, a pathetic troth, a plighting and a promising of bliss if so and so will just agree to be with the one who loves.. In Prufrock, the ratio of pathetic to troth is totally out of proportion. Supposedly, he is addressing a “you.” At one point she lays beside him on a pillow, or he imagines her doing so. Her’s is the only voice in the poem to be directly quoted and it says: He offers her a sky that is like a patient etherized upon a table. He offers her street that follow like an argument of insidious intent. He offers her loneliness, and urban squalor, and he offers a self he calls balding, and aging, and not at all a Hamlet. The Adynaton (hyperbolic appeal to doing the impossible) is reverse adynaton. Not only is the impossible impossible; but the possible and even the typical is, also, out of the question. Only in his fantasies has he heard mermaids singing each to each. He says he does not think that they will sing for him. He offers the supposed “beloved” a man who claims he should have been a pair of claws. This love song seems anything but, and yet it is a love song in so far as it is a lament, a courting to action, and the lost meanings of courtship.. His “beloved” is that action he is incapable of. I said before that sensation and intuition do not fare well when they enter discourse for they are not determined or willed functions. They may exhibit their wears, or passively watch the introverted movie of the subconscious played out through the magic lantern, but they hold discourse only through the subsidiary functions of feeling and thought, and, here in this poem feeling has become a series of vapid tropes plus nervous exhaustion, and thought has become a series of phatic allusions and received ideas. “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” might be seen in the light of another famous poem, Dover Beach. Anthony Hecht did a wonderful job of pointing out the delay and hemming and hawing of the speaker in this earlier poem by writing a sort of update on it called “A Dover Bitch.” In that poem, the girl says it is lousy to be addressed as “some last cosmic resort.” She is thinking: “fuck me already, and get it over with.” Sensation turned introverted is “pure” sensation. Intuition filtered through nervous exhaustion and received ideas is merely the fear of death, an inconsequence so vast that it leaves the very sky inert like a patient etherized upon a table.

In Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” the narrator can still make a plea for fidelity in a world where belief has retreated. By the time of Prufrock, such a plea is impossible. Yet, one can still lament the loss of will, of “I” or “we” said so. By the time of the mid century there is no grief at all among the most experimental writers for the loss of will, or the impotence of will. Process becomes its own will–a bureaucracy of sensation and intuition in which the discourse of feeling and thought is a series of tropes. that do not always adhere. Feeling is muted to the point of being almost absent. Of all the poets who master this reversal of dominant functions, there is none greater than Wallace Stevens, though, being a vital and creative admirer of George Santyanna, Stevens redeems thought and feeling as a species of sensation and intuition–what he calls the poem of earth. He claims poetry must resist the intelligence–almost. Reality is a necessary angel. In a sense, Stevens treats thoughts and feelings as decors, as scenic events. As scenery they may still hold beauty, but one’s actions must be those of sensation and intuition. That arbitrary power that lies in “because” is handed over to an it–the process of the poem, the poem as an utterance made out of words,  an “order” making machine in which a great disorder is still an order, in which the “rage to order” is detached from all stable thought, all stable feeling, and given over to a dominant sensation and intuition. So this is my eye ball estimate. I find it useful as a gadget to enter a poem, but it is not accurate at close work. At close work, one will find a thousand exceptions to this rule, but this does nothing to negate the rule. As Kafka said: “The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens; doubtless this is so, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for the heavens signify simply: the impossibility of crows.”


I tell my students that sentimentality is the appropriate emotion at the most predictable time rendered in the most obvious weather, and all of it covered with a thin scum of false compassion. But you can get away with all that, yes, even a tear falling for a dead mother on a cloudy day, if you let it be what it is, in its full poverty, if you don’t wield it like some huge club of sensitive “feeling” with which you knock the reader over the head. True feeling has the force of grace; sentimentality has the stench of morals. The word “should” and “must” cling to its fat cherubic legs. Half comprised of self regard, and the other half a mixture of cliche, the sentimental is close to the feigned regard of the funeral director: appropriate, and grave, but with one eye on the itemized bill. Hitler wept when he watched a pair of boiling lobsters, but showed no particular compassion for those he exterminated.

A mind too utilitarian and selfish, too unable to see its own contradictions, too willing to be its own hero will often have an undeveloped feeling sense. This might go a long way towards explaining why a man might cry at his spoiled brat of a daughter’s wedding (my baby, my little girl) and not even slow down to drop a quarter in the cup of a beggar. He has scenarios for his emotions: beggars are all worthless pieces of shit who cause their own troubles, but daughters getting married are video worthy–extensions of his delusion that all is right with the world, and he is a wonderful daddy. Much of what we call sensitivity is no deeper than Madame Bovary’s fantasies about being a cloistered nun. It’s horseshit.

The difficult, the ambiguous, the nuanced call for an integrity of equivocation: this does not mean we should blunt all emotions or feelings when we write. Just as some people like sappy stories, others consider any direct feeling to be a sin against their aesthetics. Both represent different species of limited. I tell my students compassion and feeling are not in the feelings themselves, but in the artistic selection of details that bring them to life. In a story where a man comes home to find his wife in bed with another man, you might create a far better feeling sense if you have him peek through the half opened door, see his wife’s clothes holding a press conference with the man’s belt and neck tie, and, instead of having the husband break in and attempt to kill the wife and lover, or having him break down in sobs, he quietly goes down stairs, and sets the tea kettle to boil, very carefully removes his eye glasses, wipes them, waits for the kettle to scream for him, a whistle that will no doubt alert the lovers that he has arrived. Good actors know that emotion can be implied through a procedural of small actions, none of which are spectacular in and of themselves, but which, cumulatively, achieve an effect of the genuine.

It is also important to remember that subtle is not always better than overt and obvious.Some writers, especially those trained in writing programs, go overboard being nuanced. I call this Chekhov syndrome. They never met an emotion they liked, and yet, their stories (or poems) can be so understated that they never show up on the page at all. This is just as god awful and boring as being maudlin, and, worse, you may even win awards for it! Others of an equally “nuanced” bent might see themselves and their values reflected in your work and consider you a “subtle” artist even when it is actually a case of you being a cold hearted snob ass. Cold hearted snob asses too often run the arts. Chekhov, unlike his followers, knew how to be openly emotional and direct. I love Chekhov better than almost any other artist, but many of his followers bore me. They almost make me want to watch “The Sound of Music” (Love Richard Rogers, hate that musical.) So what to do?

Einstein said: “Things are as simple as they are, and no simpler.” I think this applies to the feeling sense in poems and stories as well. One of the safest things you can do is teach students to “show don’t tell,” but that can lead to two errors: one, overly describing and indulging in detail for its own sake. Two, the sort of “overly nuanced” feeling sense I mentioned just a paragraph ago. I prefer: “make sure your telling shows, and your showing tells, and that the two are not so easily separated since it is the miracle of art that showing and telling be one living force, just as character and plot be one living force.

This morning, I was very happily sipping coffee, eating a hard boiled egg, and reading Nabokov’s lectures on Russian literature. These lectures are as much an aesthetic pleasure to read as a good novel. At any rate, Nabokov recognized Tolstoy as the greater artist, but Chekhov’s stories were what this great writer and, yes, snob would have taken with him if exiled to another planet. He went on in great detail about the story usually translated as “The Ravine” (Nabakov prefers “The Gully”). Nabokov’s love and admiration for Chekhov were so evident that I found myself moved to tears. I was quite pleased with my noble soul. Then I went outside to smoke a cigarette and stare at the snow swirling in thirty mile an hour gusts. Tree branches were strewn about the yard. My garbage can had made it half way down the drive way and looked as if it might hurl itself at the next available Volvo.

Still full of my artistic sensitivity, I spied a slate grey Junco hopping about near the porch. I said: “hello, Mr. Junco.” I approached it, thinking it would fly off, but the Junco only hopped rather less than frantically, and I noticed its left wing was broken. I chased that Junco half way through my yard, determined to catch it and mend it, and show how compassionate I am. He tried to escape my kindness by making a run for a Lilac bush. This exposed him to a sharp shinned hawk who swooped down and put the pretty pink billed bird out of its misery. I may have covered my eyes. I may have hated the hawk, or myself, but I watched fascinated. The grace and ferocity, and the snow swirling all about gave me a sense that this moment was memorable, that I must witness it without judgment or editorial prejudice. The Junco gave forth only one small cry of distress, and then it was dead in the talons of the hawk, and I thought of the character Lipa in Chekhov’s story, how her child is murdered by a miserable woman who throws a cup of boiling water on him. At the end of this story, long after the murder, Lipa gives a piece of buck wheat cake to the senile and cuckolded husband of the murderer, her former father-in-law. She then dissolves into the story’s end, singing a song into the evening light. I thought how mercy and ferocity might be difficult to parse out, how they might fall upon each other in such odd and frightening and glorious ways. I thought that my recent feelings of self ennoblement for being such a sensitive reader had been foolish and petty, and that the “gift” I was being given was exactly this moment in which nothing in my heart or conscience could be clearly agreed upon. This is the truth of feeling. This is where I must begin.

This is one of my favorite Stevens poems, and I was very cheered when I found out years later that Stevens felt the same.  When I first read “Large Red Man Reading,” I thought he had Matisse in the back round of his mind. Years later, I found out he was, indeed, a great admirer of Matisse. The elemental colors, and the longing of the dead to get back into the world—to feel thorns, cold, anything elemental—the pots above the stove—this was a much greater version of what Thornton Wilder attempted to get at in his play, Our Town. It is the implied mystical oxymoron of desiring and longing for what we already have. In this sense, Stevens is the great poet of the obvious.

Poeisis is not a form of intelligence, but, rather, stupidity in its old sense: as that which arrests the intelligence, which stuns us from “being” into being. Stevens leaves us standing before the one who reads, and what he reads is the new law of what Wallace called the poem of earth. To state the obvious—to truly state it—is the most difficult task of poetry.  Stevens is saying what Rilke said: rock, tree…name them. This poem invokes. It is about invocation, the most ancient of poetical powers.  It conjures. The large red man might be the sun fading in the west. He invokes what is living before night returns the dead to their rest. It is Stevens’ poem of the living and the dead. I am in awe of it.

Large Red Man Reading

There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,
As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae.
They were those from the wilderness of stars that had expected more.

There were those that returned to hear him read from the poem of life,
Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips among them.
They were those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality,

That would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
And cried out to feel it again, have run fingers over leaves
And against the most coiled thorn, have seized on what was ugly

And laughed, as he sat there reading, from out of the purple tabulae,
The outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law:
Poesis, poesis, the literal characters, the vatic lines,

Which in those ears and in those thin, those spended hearts,
Took on color, took on shape and the size of things as they are
And spoke the feeling for them, which was what they had lacked.

I’ve been enjoying Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited lately (You can find a few of his essays reprinted here). Rexroth’s literary polymathism—his ability to speak (and translate) almost anything—seems touched only by Ezra Pound (who was a great translator, but not a good one).

Rexroth’s admiration for Tu Fu as a poet (along with Joe Weil’s recommended book list) inspired me to purchase One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. And I’ve spent the last several weeks reading, and rereading Tu Fu, in hopes that I would be able to understand and come to some of the insights that Rexroth touts. For example, Rexroth says

You feel that Tu Fu brings to each poetic situation, each experienced complex of sensations and values, a completely open nervous system. Out of this comes the choice of imagery — so poignant, so startling, and yet seemingly so ordinary. . . . For Tu Fu, the realm of being and value is not bifurcated. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are not an Absolute, set over against an inchoate reality that always struggles, unsuccessfully, to approximate the pure value of the absolute. Reality is dense, all one being. Values are the way we see things. This is the essence of the Chinese world view, and it overrides even the most ethereal Buddhist philosophizing and distinguishes it from its Indian sources. There is nothing that is absolutely omnipotent, but there is nothing that is purely contingent either.

Rexroth concludes his essay saying

If Isaiah is the greatest of all religious poets, then Tu Fu is irreligious. But to me his is the only religion likely to survive the Time of Troubles that is closing out the twentieth century. It can be understood and appreciated only by the application of what Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life.” What is, is what is holy. I have translated a considerable amount of his poetry, and I have saturated myself with him for forty years. He has made me a better man, a more sensitive perceiving organism, as well as, I hope, a better poet. His poetry answers out of hand the question that worries aestheticians and critics, “What is poetry for?” What his poetry does superlatively is what is the purpose of all art.

I have not come to the profound insights of Rexroth, and I suppose I won’t for many years. I did figure out, I think, how at least one of Tu Fu’s poems functions. Or rather, how Rexroth’s translation functions. Here’s the poem:


Sunset glitters on the beads
Of the curtains. Spring flowers
Bloom in the valley. The gardens
Along the river are filled
With perfume. Smoke of cooking
Fires drifts over the slow barges.
Sparrows hop and tumble in
The branches. Whirling insects
Swarm in the air. Who discovered
That one cup of thick wine
Will dispel a thousand cares?

On display here, of course, is poetic montage, which became especially popular in modernist poetry (in part because of the influence of eastern poetry, which was being imported to English via French, if I understand history correctly). I had always been familiar with Ezra Pound’s idea of metaphor as a sort of montage, but what is happening here seems to me to be a sort of directional, linear montage. One image leads to the next in a linking chain of montage. The sunset glittering on the beads is (possibly) refracted, turned into multiple colors. The beads, perhaps, are slowly moving from side to side, like a pendulum. This is similar to the way that the flowers, coming up in Spring, begin to display various colors and perhaps wave in the Zephyr.

The flowers quite readily lead to the garden image—this isn’t really montage. The garden is full of perfume, which leads to the smoke from the barges. The barges lead to the sparrows—perhaps a bit of a stretch, but I can see one saying that barges drift and tumble down a river the way that sparrows hop and tumble through branches. The montage here, I think, is the implied aimlessness. Finally, the sparrows montage into the insects.

We want to ask next, how do all these images culminate in the question “Who discovered / That one cup of thick wine / Will dispel a thousand cares?” It’s a good question, and on the surface it seems that Tu Fu/Rexroth has pulled this last line rabbit-like out of a hat. It’s not a complete non-sequitor. But let’s return to what Rexroth says:

Out of this comes the choice of imagery — so poignant, so startling, and yet seemingly so ordinary. . . . For Tu Fu, the realm of being and value is not bifurcated. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are not an Absolute, set over against an inchoate reality that always struggles, unsuccessfully, to approximate the pure value of the absolute. Reality is dense, all one being. Values are the way we see things.

Rexroth seems to be saying, in Tu Fu’s poetry, the question I just posed should not even be a question. We perceive a break between images and feeling. But perhaps this break is artificial. We acknowledge that images can evoke feelings, perhaps that there is an “objective correlative” that can reliably evoke feelings. But perhaps what is being suggested here is that the category break is weaker than we think. The image (object) is already interpreted: “values are the way we see things.”

Thus, we can move seamlessly from the barge to sparrows to the question about wine; it’s all part of Tu Fu’s hermeneutic circle: one thing constantly interpreting the next. Perhaps I should reconsider my use of the word “linear,” given that I just described Tu Fu as using a sort of “circle.” But I don’t want to sit firmly with one or the other. Maybe coil? Spring?

These philosophical musings are not what is poetic here, though. Perhaps they are the fodder of the poetic (though “fodder” downgrades philosophy in an unfair way). Having interpreted the poem philosophically, though, it begs the question: what is poetic about this piece? Rexroth again: [Tu Fu’s] poetry answers out of hand the question that worries aestheticians and critics, “What is poetry for?” What his poetry does superlatively is what is the purpose of all art.

Rexroth’s answer may be a trapdoor: What is poetry? Read Tu Fu and you will understand. Undoubtedly there is a wholeness about Tu Fu’s poem. We enter the poem at the beginning and leave it at the end. Have we gone anywhere? We’ve moved from image to image, and yet I’ve argued we remain in the same place, we have stayed within an interpretive circle.

Yet our minds have been expanded. We are in a different place than before. We can try to define that place, interpret and understand it, but in doing so we are actually moving to a new place. We grasp at it and it slips away.

My research currently has me looking into the surrealist-Beats, and I recently read Bob Kaufman’s Solitude Crowded With Loneliness. This was Kaufman’s first book, published in 1965, which brought together work from the late fifties that had made him famous, including The Abomunist Manifesto and Does the Secret Mind Whisper?

I am in awe of how completely Kaufman was able to embody a multitude of traditions. His work is absolutely Beat, absolutely jazz/blues and absolutely surreal. He is thinking, living and writing with all three in mind—indeed, all of these “philosophies” were in the very core of his being—and he made them perfectly harmonious, crafting poetry that enacts revolt and social critique at the same time as it heals the primitive, hard-knocked soul. The reader familiar with the Beats will probably sense intuitively that jazz and Surrealism are highly compatible with the Beat ethos and that it makes perfect sense for the Beats to draw on them, but these poets still had to transmute these influences into a singular, shamanic, “howling” voice.

One of the most powerful tools the Beats employed was the catalog or anaphora. This is prominent in almost every famous Beat poem, including “Howl.” When surrealist-Beats infuse images of dissonance into their catalogues, the effect becomes one of controlled (but threatening) hysteria. Call it the hysterical catalog. Here’s one from Kaufman’s “I, Too, Know What I Am Not”:

No, I am not death wishes of sacred rapists, singing on candy gallows.
No, I am not spoor of Creole murderers hiding in crepe-paper bayous.
No, I am not yells of some assassinated inventor, locked in his burning machine.
No, I am not forced breathing of Cairo’s senile burglar, in lead shoes.
No, I am not Indian-summer fruit of Negro piano tuners, with muslin gloves.
No, I am not noise of two-gun senators, in hallowed peppermint halls.
No, I am not pipe-smoke hopes of cynical chiropractors, traffickers in illegal bone.

As with “Howl,” the catalog slowly overwhelms the reader with its unrelenting monotony.

Playing against the monotony is the energy and bursts of thought in the images themselves, each one packed with jarring disjunction, political parody, social criticism and humor. As I read Solitudes, I began to wonder how the Beats consistently discovered images to contain all these elements simultaneously (not to say that their poems do not vary in quality). With Kaufman, the images are enhanced by courageous comparisons, yet remain firmly fixed in the mode of socio-political critique:

Hawkeyed baggy-pants businessmen,
Building earthquake-proof, aluminum whorehouses,
Guaranteeing satisfaction to pinstriped murderers,
Or your money back to West Heaven,
Full of glorious, Caesarean-section politicians,
Giving kisses to round half-lipped babies,
Eating metal jazz, from cavities, in father’s chest,
Purchased in flagpole war, to leave balloon-chested
Unfreaked Reader’s Digest women grinning at Coit Tower.

Kaufman and other surrealist-Beats transposed Surrealism’s “chance meeting of an umbrella and sewing machine on a dissection table” into more direct images of social dissent and protest. To do so, they moved away from automatism toward images that float around the semantic fields of recognizable political and social concerns. Their parodic statements, most of the time, are actually quite vague, but the poetry has a distinct political subtext.

Paradoxically, the Beats depicted themselves and the society they were rejecting in surreal imagery. America, in their estimation is a surrealist circus, full of absurdities. The Beat, likewise, lives a life of contradictions, dream-reality and contorted madness because of the context in which he finds himself. The Beat incarnates the body politic and becomes a martyr on behalf of humanity. He becomes the landscape of maligned conditions that oppress the Beat virtues of love, life and liberty. This is the premise of the Beat lifestyle, but it is especially poignant in a writer like Kaufman, whose “mongrel” heritage of Creole, African American, Jew, Catholic, sailor, peyote-smoker, poet and jazz enthusiast exposed him to, and makes him the inheritor of, a broad range of cultural prejudices and injustices. Kaufman draws all these forces and beatness into himself with images that are centered on his body:

My body is a torn mattress,
Disheveled throbbing place
For the comings and goings
Of loveless transients.
. . .
My face is covered with maps of dead nations;
My hair is littered with drying ragweed.
. . .
The nipples of my breasts are sun-browned cockleburrs [sic];
Long-forgotten Indian tribes fight battles on my chest
Unaware of the sunken ships rotting in my stomach.

Like Whitman, Kaufman “contains” America, but this kind of containment does not resolve the contradictions, absurdities, atrocities and madness. So the Beat becomes one who is absurd, atrocious and hysterical—but he is not a hypocrite. He restores himself by embracing the contradictory nature of life (as well as the pleasure-principle and a few other Beat tenants). This allows the Beat to survive and even thrive in a society blinded by moralism and paranoia—a society whose misguided premises preclude it from containing contradiction. Thus, by simply affirming the contradictory nature of reality (in the abundance of surreal configurations of life available to him everywhere he looks), the Beat poet reverses his condition. Thus, Kaufman’s triumphant body is restored to life:

The hairy little hairs
On my head,
Millions of little
Secret trees,
Filled with dead
That won’t stay

When I die,
I won’t stay

On this basis, Beat poets like Kaufman, Corso and, to some extent, Ginsberg, utilize the Surrealist strategy of radical juxtaposition to transform the political landscape. It is in Beat poetry that Surrealism finds its first widely-visible expression—a poetics that embraces poetry’s revolutionary potential.

Piety: We will be using this term in its extra-religious sense as first defined (in that sense) by George Santayana, and greatly expanded upon by Kenneth Burke in his work Permanence and Change. I strongly suggest you read Burke’s chapter on piety since it is an astounding critical work. At any rate, you can get the whole of Permanence and Change on PDF by Googling it. Do so.

For now, let us give Santayana’s definition of piety: “loyalty to the sources of one’s being.” Now this is not confined to physical being, but to one’s cultural, sexual, political, professional, and symbolic being, also one’s semiotic being (for example, brand names and fashion). A person may contain conflicting pieties. This is why a “noble” person who does the grand gesture of forgiving a criminal and is gladly arrested while protesting his execution might, a week later, fly into a fury and rage and think evil towards someone who has messed with the order of the pencil’s on her desk. In rational terms, they are just pencils. What’s the big deal? In symbolic terms, they may represent her sense of control, her sense of private space. Once we see this as a loyalty to the sources of her being, but realize that those sources are complex and varied, and might even be in conflict, we get an idea of why human behavior is so complicated. A theory in current evolutionary psychology might offer insight.

David Buller, in his wonderful work, Adapting Minds, both takes to task, and explores a belief common in 1980’s and 90’s in evolutionary biology known as the modularity thesis:

Evolutionary psychologists claim that human psychological adaptations take the form of modules, special purpose “minicomputers”, each of which is dedicated to solving problems related to a particular aspect of survival or reproduction in the human environment of evolutionary adaptness (EEA). Summarizing this view, Steven Pinker says, “the mind is organized into modules or mental organs, each with a specialized design that makes it an expert in one arena of interaction with the world. The modules’ basic logic is specified by our genetic program. Their operation was shaped by natural selection to solve the problems of the hunting and gathering life led by our ancestors in most of our evolutionary history.” Given that evolutionary psychologists claim that there are hundreds or thousands of modules comprising the human mind, this view of the mind has been called the “massive modularity thesis.”

Such division of labor, such independence and non-coherence of modules might well explain why a person dead set against the death penalty might fly into a rage over a shifting of her pencils. Of course, if the module of her anti-death penalty belief, if one of the mini-computers in a set of mini-computers, and her reading, political mind set, and awareness of semiotic piety is in full force, then she might not rage, even if she feels infuriated. After all, someone might think it odd that a person against the death penalty is “freaking out” over her pencils. She might keep her voice at a “peace activist” level. She might patiently and gently express to the sinner that she likes her pencils just so. She may even make a little self-deprecating joke about her own “OCD.” It depends on the level of stress. Still, if this person continues to fool around with her pencils, our activist might find a way to exile her from her life. She will keep the murderers close, and exile the pencil terrorists! After all, a murderer might kill a family in cold blood, but he never fucks with your pencils. To put it in an adage: “men may forgive murder, but they will never forgive a mooch who never has his own money or cigarettes.” This is the loyalty to the sources of one’s being in a nut shell. But notice the conflicting piety. Perhaps we can see piety in the following manner (cheap but effective):

Macro-piety: Those core loyalties to one’s being concerning how you and others should live, how the world should be, and how it really is (idealism/criticism/ realism)
Micro-piety: Those little habits, those beneath which nots, your sense of space, choice of music, quirks, tendencies of personality that define you moment by moment.
Pietistic integration: The attempt to make macro piety and micro-piety accountable to each other, and to live as a seamless whole.
Pietistic conflict: Those conflicts between pieties that cause us to be unique, complex, contradictory, and weird or misunderstood.

With this knowledge we could have no trouble doing a typical romantic comedy eco-disaster movie: in romantic comedy, boy and girl or girl and girl, or boy and boy meet, dislike, are thrust into a situation with each other, compromise, fall in love, have one more major falling out, then reunite: lights outs. Now for the movie:

Wendy, a crusading, passionate ecology doctoral student is hired to work with the world renowned Peter Thorndike, the leading authority on studying glaciers for evidence of global warming. She has heard that he is called the “monster.” But she has read and admired all his work. Like Katherine Hepburn in the days of yore, she is undaunted and believes she can work with the monster. In point of fact, she is looking forward to the challenge. She is 100% eco: hemp, her whole being expressing a life of hiking, veganism, chanting, political activism, etc, etc.

Enter Peter Thorndike, the monster. Peter, about six years older than Wendy and a thousand galaxies removed semiotically: never saw a cheese burger he didn’t like. Listens to death metal. Wears shirts given to him by his aunts at Easter from Wal-Mart. Smokes, and not hand rolls, or American Spirits, but Pall Malls. Drives a gas guzzling pick up. Gets along with the locals, talks hunting, and has no patience with tree huggers, though he is, at heart, a profound lover of the woods and of nature. He is grouchy, prone to getting ranch dressing on his reports, a person who any tree hugger might hate if he wasn’t so brilliant and dedicated to his work.

Wendy’s perfect boyfriend (there are always these perfect boyfriends in such movies, a man with a perfect integration of macro/micro pieties, all except for one thing: he’s too perfect. No one likes too perfect. they are the kind of romantic character we despise). He’s hot, plays bluegrass bass & fiddle in a eco-cowboy punk band, and always says the right thing to Wendy at the right moment except they are too comfortable with each other: no tension, no real passion. He’s wonderful in bed, but when she tells him she’s going to work with Peter Thorndike in some back water town in Alaska, he barely misses a beat and has no problem with it. His fatal flaw is he doesn’t care enough to stop “caring” in all the expected ways.

The first scene would be the meeting of Wendy and Peter under the rules of antipathy common to romantic comedies. She might enter his office while he is finishing a bacon double cheeseburger, polishing it off with Orange cream soda, and dancing around his charts and stats to a speed metal band. They conflict, but their common thread is the work. One night they get stranded on a mountain, and of course, this is where the bonding takes place (like the drunk scene in Jaws). They become friendly in spite of all their difference. We first know she might be falling for him when she Googles speed metal. We might know he is falling for her when he brings his bottle of hot sauce to the dinner she has made him of Tempe, and goes to pour it on the food, and then desists, looks at her, takes a bite, and actually likes it. We can see the romantic comedy in terms of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. We can go all Hegel on this. But the active literary interest and drama/comedy will be created by a creative between conflicting pieties, and over all growing affinity.

Piety then is what we value, or that loyalty to the sources of our being, but it is more than value. In the full complexity of human constructs it is the rhetoric of conflicting and supposedly coherent values. We will now look at a famous poem, and see it in the terms of this piety (loyalty to the sources of one’s being). The poem is by William Carlos Williams. He is considered an arch-modernist and an enemy of the sentimental tradition of Edwardian and romantic literature. Some claimed his poems are “anti-poems.” Nicanor Parra, a South American poet heavily influenced by Williams, had the temerity to call his Williams-influenced poems “Anti-poems.” At the same time, Stevens charged his friend Williams with the sin of sentimentality (a terrible charge against a self proclaimed champion of the new). Both Parra and Stevens are right, for, in Williams, as in many dynamic and important poets, we find what I will call pietistic conflict. On the one hand, Williams was all for throwing out flowery speech and the overly rhetorical convolutions of the European (read English) tradition. On the other, he was raised in a world of flowers and color; his mother was a gifted painter, and Williams had a blind spot in his otherwise clear headed doctor way of thinking—or rather than a blind spot, let us call it a conflicting piety. Also Williams, in his earliest years, was completely enthralled by the poems of John Keats. In his poem “The Act” he makes two characters, but I believe they could be seen as a dramatization of his own inner aesthetic conflicts, his conflicting pieties. At any rate the poem:

The Act

There were the roses, in the rain.
Don’t cut them, I pleaded. They won’t last, she said.
But they’re so beautiful where they are.
Agh, we were all beautiful once, she said,
and cut them and gave them to me in my hand.

In this poem, Williams plays the aesthete to the woman’s practical and unsentimental notions. He is defending the source of his being in beauty. To cut the roses in the rain would be a sin against the source of beauty. That is the speaker’s piety. She is enforcing a piety or an impiety of utility, of “brutal” realism. This explains the dynamic energy of the poem. It is an essay on conflicting realms of piety. Burke, in the beginning of his chapter on piety, speaks of a man felling a great tree. He needs it for firewood. After felling it with his axe, he feels strangely at odds with himself. He may associate the tree with the father, with the sacred strength of the father. There may be a symbolic parricide in this act, one a poet might perceive more readily (of course, in the Mother earth realm of present day ecology, the great tree might as well be a mother). In ancient cultures such “sins” could be purged by a ritual act of cleansing. In a sense, the modern man’s act of cleansing is to fall upon the rampart and “piety” of the utilitarian. “nonsense!” The man says. “I need the wood. It’s just a tree. There are plenty more where that came from.”

We may not be aware of many of our pieties until they are trespassed against. As Burke points out in another book, The Rhetoric of Religion, the words Quoseth (Hebrew), Hagios (Greek) and Sacre (Latin) are traditionally translated as holy or sacred ground, but they are not that limited. A truly more literal translation is “ground set apart”—in which case, that ground can be sacred or accursed depending on the piety or impiety of the situation. Piety, in a sense is ground set a part, isolated from its semiotic indicators and its symbols, until those indicators and symbols are threatened or made unstable, or come into conflict with others. Let us look then at another poem grounded in piety as we are discussing it here: Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.”

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

There are several conflicting pieties here. The section where Oliver goes on about penitents seems to be an implicit slap upside the head of standard, “guilt ridden religion.” The New Agers cheer! Yes! I don’t have to be good; all I have to do is let my body love what it loves. The overt piety of this poem is nature as a form of salvation, but the covert piety of this poem is the natural (as in organic), self-love, choice culture of spiritual consumerism. This choice culture only has to love what it loves. It doesn’t have to be good. It has to be a shopper. In point of fact, nature, in the later part of the poem “offers.” Now that’s a word dear to every consumer’s heart. I don’t know if Oliver intended this piety to be there, but it’s there in spades.

Also, it harks back to an earlier Protestant piety: the rejection of good works in order to emphasize faith and grace—election. We are “elected” if only we let our bodies love what they love. So, in going against the piety of guilt and repentance, she embraces the theological concept of election. She goes on to say (I am paraphrasing here): “Tell me your troubles, I’ll tell you mine.” This sounds like a good deal, except she immediately cancels troubles by implying they are negative in comparison to the majesty of the world as ongoing and healing process, all of which is at our disposal. How dare we waste time looking at our troubles? That is the lesser choice, the “bad” choice. So, to amend her opening gambit: you do not have to be good, but you can’t focus on despair because that is bad. You do not have to be good. You have to be positive. Could a new age consumer be more thrilled? I have seen otherwise sensible poets go into ecstasy over this well made, very good, but not great poem.

Unwittingly, it is touching and massaging every button of our choice culture, (the knee jerk I am spiritual, not religious) and the piety of choice, middle class privilege, consumer satisfaction, and positive thinking, plus “green think.” The geese are personified. They are angels, the angels of the new order which is an order of post-Wordsworthian salvation through communion with all sentient being. OK, fine. But this poem contains even more conflicting piety than Williams, and it reeks of the chief contradiction of the new age: A conflict between choice, and unlimited vistas, and very real concerns about conservation. In a more sensible argument, these conflicts might be resolved with: “you have choices, and you do not have to be good, but make sure you are organic.” At another point, Mary Oliver would not be so ready to say: “you do not have to be good”—if a group of hunters were out there, plugging away at the geese. God forbid! This would hit her dead center in her conflicting piety. Of course, if they were Native Americans, taking the geese and singing praise over them, that would be a different story.

This is the danger of piety: it shows all our utopias to be greatly compromised by our pietistic contradictions. I think of the squatter I knew when I was homeless, returning to his parent’s Scarsdale mansion on the weekend to do his laundry. I think of the radical feminist who I saw torture a waitress because she wanted her toss salad “just so.” In terms of piety and even in terms of the “modularity” thesis, these are not acts of hypocrisy. Our pieties are hidden, especially the ones that conflict with our core sense of self. They jump out at odd times to bite us on the ass.

But I want you to question your own piety and so, here, so I must figure out why Mary Oliver’s lovely poem enraged me.

It is probably not the poem at all, but the fact that I saw it raved about by affluent well-educated poetasters who were snobbish towards me. After all, I was not a wild goose. I was a working class prol who, somehow, because of my odd predilection and knowledge of poetry, had blundered into having authority over them in a work shop. They were all fans of Mary Oliver, and they hated anything brutal, or violent, or outside their piety of New Age epiphanies. They savaged a woman who had brought in a poem by Philip Larkin. I am not a big fan of Larkin, but I consider him at least the equal of Oliver. They savaged him for being a pessimist. I countered: “yes, but can you extend beyond your dislike of pessimism to look at his craft and skill in being a pessimist?” They could not. They savaged him for rhyming (someone had told them rhymed poetry was always suspect unless it was before the 20th century). One woman spoke up and said: “he’s just a clever dead white male.” I said: “so is Shakespeare… Do you think Mary Oliver is a better poet than Shakespeare?” She paused, thinking it out, then replied: “Shakespeare was good for his time. Mary Oliver is more relevant to ours.” I then launched into my knowledge of all of Shakespeare’s nature poetry, his superior knowledge of animal husbandry, his closer, almost daily encounter with a pre-industrial world. She said: “Well, you don’t like Mary Oliver because she’s a strong woman.” Then, unable to hold back, I said: “No I don’t like Mary Oliver because I think she’s just an upgraded version of self help drivel. I think her love of nature is privileged. I think John Clare far superior to her.  As for strong women, I was raised by five aunts and a strong mother. They got dirty. Bugs didn’t eat sugar from their hands. I think her easy spirituality is horse shit, and I think you can’t love nature in that way unless you come from an income of at least 100,000 a year, and can afford to have such wise sentiments. Every time I see a Mary Oliver poem, I hear the eco-friendly middle class trampling on the graves of working people. You don’t have to like what I say, As Mary tells us, I do not have to be good.”

I went away greatly puzzled by my anger. I felt awful. I actually liked “The Wild Geese,” but they also claimed it was superior to the sixth part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and that I could not stand. I examined my conscience. I had slipped into demonizing mode. It was not Mary Oliver I disliked. It was her gatekeepers. I went back the next week, apologized for my vehemence, and we entered a new realm. We started talking about received value and piety. I conceded it was a good poem. They conceded Larkin was funny. So it goes. Know your mechanisms before you proceed. More importantly, know that you can never know them fully. That is both to the pain and the glory of the human construct.

In the interest of clarity, we will be using terms I’ve either borrowed or made up as a sort of “jargon” by which to navigate this series of essays. The first of these are the ten forms of “value.’ These are values by which cannons and books enter the world of letters. I name them:

1. Received/institutionalized value
2. True value
3. Illicit value
4. Integrated value
5. Inclusive value
6. Immediate value
7. Historical value
8. Market value
9. Normative value
10. Disruptive value
11. This is the extra value which we will call the court jester of values: dubious value.

A brief explanation of each of these:

Received value consists of works which no one questions the value of: Hamlet, Moby-Dick, etc. Many of these works exist as givens in the culture, and, when they are challenged, it is often done for flourish, to seem daring, or to make from that challenge a power move towards inclusion of a new aesthetic that is, at that moment, considered outside the established order. One is expected by critics, scholars, and authorities to have read, or to, at least, know the names of these works. Many become foundational texts, and one is compelled to read them as early as high school. They are received in so far as they are seldom questioned. They are institutionalized in so far as they are made required reading. They are generative in so far as they are the very works by which, from which, and around which the cultural apparatus is set into motion. They exist as the given structure.

True value is what the auditor simply desires or enjoys, irrespective of imposed or received value. Of course received value may shape his or her tastes towards true value (that is called education) but the auditor genuinely desires both to read these texts and gets pleasure from such reading. An interesting list of must read books made it to face book recently. It was the most hybrid list of these ten values I have yet seen and included the Da Vinci Code among its cannon. We are witnessing not a loss of the cannon, but what I will call a hybrid cannon between books that are considered master pieces and books that are considered part of the cultural meme. Americans do not like neat distinctions and it was not explained why a popular best seller would be a “must read” along with Tolstoy. It would be interesting to study this list for evidence in a shift or blurring of lines in our value systems.

Illicit value: The auditor knows that what he or she is reading has no true value. It is trash, a guilty pleasure, a work which, if exposed to the light of day, would lesson them in the eyes of their friends and peers. With the advent of the campy, a person may indulge in such reading as long as he or she lets you know that he or she knows this is “bad” work. It may even become a semiotic indicator of a sort of cool to indulge in such work. It is like a hipster who suddenly revels in owning ten Wayne Newton Albums. This is a game of irony, and is often played up as being no irony at all—but, rather, a hyper literal sense of embracing garbage in order to show oneself  to be as free of any outside law and as arbitrary—as a god. It is hard to parse this illicit value out from true value. If one willfully indulges in nothing but Wayne Newton albums, one is either Andy Warhol, or an old lady at bingo. And given our society, there is a distinct possibility that every old lady at bingo, heightened by a situational slant of light is, indeed, Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol went to mass daily.

Integrated value: When one is aware of the mechanisms of one’s received values, or as fully aware as possible, is aware, and has refined one’s tastes to the point where an aesthetic argument, a reasonable one, can be made for exceptions, for a certain latitude within and without received and true values, then one may be said to have achieved “integrated value.” This is the position of the discerning critic. Intuition, bred from years of training or study, allows this auditor to make “informed” appraisals, and, more to the point, to step out of his aesthetic limitations to acknowledge work which, not being to his taste, he or she can still call well done. This rare and benevolent beast exists far more as an ideal than as a reality, but it is on this “nose” for exceptions that many careers are made, and by which, many “lost” works are reinstated. This is the aesthete as “hero.” He raises John Clare from the dead. He sees the talent in the raw. He may not be a king maker, but he knows how to whisper in the ears of king-makers. He is steady, and intelligent, and moves through the world with just the right balance of unpredictability and gravitas.

Inclusive value: When we cannot kill, dismiss, or withstand an effective assault of outsiders on the cannon, then, first, the most presentable of the outsiders, then a charismatic maverick or two, and, finally, a general flood are acknowledged as having value. Their presence is considered a token of equity—of power sharing. In some respects, they remain in ghettos defined by gender, race, sexuality, or class. Some of these authors wish to be seen only as poets or novelists, sans their classification. This is the meaning of “post” race, post gender, and so on and so forth. Ina dislogistic sense, it can be viewed as “We have come along enough to be snobs just like the ones who kept us out.” In a neutral sense, it means: “We are now equal or, at least, in the ball park of equal and can be seen for our distinctions rather than for our representation. In the laudatory sense it means, some grand goal of life style leftism has been achieved, and the categories are outmoded. Others embrace being role models, representatives of the formerly excluded. Still others have “representation” thrust upon them. They represent whether they will or not. These ghettos provide a power base, but are also a limitation. This evolves over time until those who seem most out of type, most independent of either the prototype of the literary establishment, or the prototype of the exception, are, themselves, charged with the sin of impiety against the categorical. On the one hand, they do not fit the establishment. On the other, they do not fit the semiotics of the established “anti-establishment.” This is a problem with the categorical we will address as the course continues. Suffice it to say, inclusive “value” is grudgingly acknowledged by all but the most powerful, though, in the safety of private thought, a “black writer,” or a Chicano writer, or a trans-gender, black/Chicano writer might still never be allowed to live without his or her qualifiers. The true  and integrative value with which a good reader approaches their work is the most a credible solution, but it is seldom allowed to go unchallenged. In the last fifty years identity, and multi-cultural attacks on the cannon have caused many an aesthete to become positively noble in their lament for standards (whatever those are). Some of these aesthetes belong to the very groups that were formerly excluded.

Immediate value is the buzz, the names on every graduate student’s lips: Mathew or Michael Dickman! La, la, la… Zapruder! Ala, ala… Alex Lemon! Such writers are well on their way to being crowned. Too much buzz, and they might be in for a fall. A steady buzz and they become a brand name. These are open sesame names that make a literary person look up to the minute. They are easy to drop as “names” that are not yet known by the masses. It keeps the outsiders defined and creates the allusion of knowing—a very powerful allusion.

Historical value: Writers raised from the dead because some group who feels outside the power structure wants in, or because they are needed to surround the crown jewels of a literary movement or time.

Market value: These are writers who have spent most of their lives derided for being pop novelists, but are then, through persistent buzz and sheer time, and their own longing to be taken seriously, taken seriously: Stephen King, and, oddly, the writer of the Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown) are cases in point. Somehow the Da Vinci Code ended up on a list of must read books that also includes acknowledged greats. This can only be explained by a confusion of values, and merge point where popularity, and the duration of popularity shares in some of the indicators of literary greatness. Sometimes it takes the French to crown pulp (The film noir craze that made serious writers out of detective novelists). There has been a general schism between what is wildly popular and what is “high art” since Dickens. Market value, once translated into literary value makes for a “classic.” There are writers considered serious who hit the jackpot (John Irving). But here, I am speaking of writers considered pulp who become “serious” because some critic, or a group of influential critics, mistakes their illicit value for true value. Their books may be filled with cliché, shoddy sentences, stock characters, but some “idea” takes hold of our collective imagination (or lack thereof) and makes them “serious.” This usually happens when actual sales start declining.

Normative value: these are your grant winning, smaller award winning serious poets and novelists. They define the norm of what is considered “good.” They do not reach the heights. They never sink too low. The creds and the respect in which they are held leads to tenure, and a small following of ideal and intelligent readers. They round out most parties, and most often throw them.

Disruptive value: An obscenity trial, an early death, a controversial topic, some strain of madness that intersects with the cultural meme, an energy that is as much extra-literary as literary creates a stir, and this stir leads to the writer having a semiotic significance.

Total obscurity during one’s actual life is another draw here: Whitman, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Joyce, Lawrence, and Ginsberg rose to fame on the broken wings of scandal. John Clare, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins rode on the wings of their former obscurity.  This includes poets and novelists championed because they have been thrown into prison. All this is extra-literary, but so what? If we think only the literature counts when it comes to gate keepers of greatness, then we ought to buy a moon pie, and sit with our gal Lucy under the Brooklyn bridge and say: “gee, Lucy, some day, I’m going to buy this bridge for you.”

Dubious value: all ten of the above.

None of these values exist in isolated, pure form, and all of them bleed into the other, causing a hopeless mess I am attempting, through these ten kinds of value, to note—not define. I note these ten, and there may be more, but these ten are useful to our purpose for when we start looking at the structures operating behind gate keepers.

It must be remembered that none of these values exist in their pure form, and that a constant ongoing “rhetoric” exists between them, a call and response in which the rhetoric itself—the interactions and movements of the bodies, their “trace” is all that is truly visible (much as we know certain particles by their movements, by their trail, we know our values very often when they are embodied by a deed, or challenged by a deed). I will define rhetoric as follows:

Any symbolic act made to bridge or understand the gap between self and other or to widen that gap—to either find common ground or to claim for the ground the same impassable space as exists between “friend” and “foe.” Rhetoric occurs when ever two entities, or an entity speaking to itslef and therefore divided, wish to size up, define, mitigate, affirm, or “reform” or dismantle values which they may share in part, in whole, or by which they are in opposition. Rhetoric, in addition to persuading, also attacks, courts, seduces, and defines the context by which certain events will be perceived and, often, by which they may occur. And here’s another interesting idea: experiments at stanford have shown that languages create thought grooves which, when deep enough, may lead to the sort of trained incapacity Veblen spoke of. English for example ascribes an agen to any act regardless of intention or motive, and is very good at creating a memory for details all around the act, but it tends to be less concerned with motive or intention, and will leave these out of the sentence, if it leaves anything out. Agent and act will always remain, but intention and motive might disappear. this is not true in Spanish.  The test that was given showed that, in Spanish, unless a glass was broken intentionally, the glass broke itself. The act was remembered, but the agent of the act was not considered important  enough to remember unless the person intentionally and willfully broke the glass. It seems Spanish speakers did not remember such details because intention in the Spanish language often determines whether a perpetrator is needed.  Otherwise “The glass broke itself” No mention of a breaker. In English, the language caused people to remember both the one who intentionally broke the glass and the one who unintentionally broke the glass, as “he broke the glass.” What the Spanish language speakers tended to leave out were the agents. What the English language speakers tended to leave out were the motives and intentions of the act. The different languages had taught the people in the experiment to concentrate on and remember different things. This means their cognition, their “thoughts” were differently grooved by the languages they spoke. A time orient, agent/act oriented langauge will create a far different rhetoric. It might be capable of far greater recall of the scene/act, but be far poorer at considering intention. A language in which time is not linear (and there are many) might create a person who sees the world very differently. Time and space, and even the way we view what is politically correct are all much more contingent on our training in rhetoric, and the grooving of one’s brain in certain languages, than on a specifically hard wired mechanism of thought that is “universal” and capable of surmounting the grooves of our trained capacity and incapacity. When a child says in Enlgish to his mommy: “the glass broke mommy,” the mother might reply: “Well, it didn’t just break by itself (enforcing the bias in English for agent/act) What did you do? Did you break the glass?” The child learns “I broke the glass”. or “Jimmy broke the glass.” The child does not learn as strongly that, without a deliberate will to break the glass, it just “broke” IN situations where they wish to defend someone they like, they might say: “by accident.” Not always. This goes a long way in explaining some of our current reliance on intention and motive free neutral speech– speech robbed of any nuance save for the process of who did what and where. This is considered full proof in English. We do not always take the intention into consideration, especially if it is good for our agenda to forget the motivational reason behind an act or statement. Certain “Waht’s” are censored without consdieration to their intent: for example, Mark Twain has his characters use the N word, and bigots use the N word. All that the politically correct focus on his the word– the act, not its intention or context. Reuslt: blanket censorship. This may just be because English, and especially American English tends to ignore motive and intent and focus on act and IN Spanish the act would be remembered, but not necessarily the agent. The glass broke. No one broke it. It broke. This is interesting when we apply it to a situation where someone sees the N word in Huckleberry Finn, and does not make a nuanced distinction between the intention of its use in Huck Finn and its use by a racist boss. Of course many try to make this distinction, but the tendency of English to emphasize Agent/act, and the tendency of Amercan English to simplify everything beyond motive, causes us to censor Huckelberry Finn as “inappropriate.” Someone broke a glass, and that is bad. Someone used the N word and that is bad. Context, motive, and intention are not as important as agent/act. This effects our political rhetoric, and we tend to islate verbal acts outside of context and intention in order to destroy our enemies. Why they did it is beside the point. Very scary when you think about it.

So rhetoric is the verbal mechanism of ritual, consensus, strife, uneasy truces, alliances, and at the core of all value systems, aesthetics, and orders of priority and procedure. One could say that each “surrealist” poem is a rhetorical subset of appeal to surrealism itself. Surrealism may be the title, and the poem may be what proceeds from that title, but both poem and title maintain an ongoing rhetoric with each other and with the audience, thus helping to both define and reconfigure the orientation of each. It is through different modes of appeal that surrealism itself evolves or fails to evolve. Whenever a rhetoric is in place for a profession, an aesthetic, or belief system, or a literary movement, two outcomes are inevitable: the presence of piety (an appeal to the sources of one’s being, in the forms of a jargon, an attitude,and a procedure or praxis that is considered proper) and an initiation towards the pure. We will explore piety as a secular and religious force which, in the strongest moments of enforcement may supersede the effectiveness of its own rhetoric, and even endanger the very values for which the rhetoric is first instituted (for example, when evolutionary biologists try to defend evolution by using the very language that infuriates the opposition, and offends people’s sensibilities).

A maxim: The more stable the rhetoric, the more hypertrophic its piety and its sense of initiation. At a critical level of stability, this hypertrophy of piety creates a bureaucratic state of utterance in which the means justify the means, the system perpetuates itself as pure rhetoric. It is unaware of itself as a rhetoric and believes it is existence itself. So: the lawyer who becomes the perfect embodiment of lawyer may be unable to accept any new developments in his field except as “impieties,” threats, forms of secular blasphemy. They are not the rhetoric of being a lawyer as he knows it, and he might react emotionally to this change. His level of piety sees such change as an affront even when it is pointed out to him that the change is necessary. A literary establishment might be so immured in the process of being a literary establishment that it might see “new” developments only when they fit preconceived notions of the new and proceed in ways the establishment considers non-threatening to its rhetoric. Anything truly new will be subject to resistance. The old orientation will not be able to assimilate it, and will therefore either reject, ignore, or attack it as symptomatic of a “decline” in standards.What speaks outside the grooves of our current language often creates the same hostility as a foreign language. If attacking this new discourse or rhetoric does not work, the old will take on some of the aspects of the new. This is what I call rhetorical mate selection. It is not the ideas of the new, but their rigor and jargon which people so often fear and protest against. How people “See” things is hopelessly related to how they express them. The first cars looked just like horseless carriages. How movement was expressed aestheticly took longer to change than how it was expressed in terms of horse verses horse power. The new will enter, but compromised by the old. A sort of merge point will be affected thus changing the orientation of old to new, and new to old. Another possibility, when a system has achieved extreme bureaucratic purity is that nothing can even be perceived as existing outside that system. All rhetorical, symbolic, and methodological force will be put to the purpose of subsuming this foreign matter into the old understanding of the system. This is what Veblen hinted at in his idea of “trained incapacity.” It is what John Dewey warned of in his concept of “Occupational psychosis.”

Now a parable borrowed from Burke’s expansion on John Dewey’s occupational psychosis and Veblen’s trained incapacity in his great book Permanence and Change:

Chicken are trained to answer a bell in order to eat. They are conditioned to this bell. Bell equals food. Food equals bell.

One day, a chicken answers the bell and is killed. This goes on for quite some time. The chicken’s training, which was perfect, and perfectly obeyed, now leads to his slaughter. Chickens are doing whatever chickens have been trained to do and have always done, and the results are disastrous. The chicken’s training is a groove, a  cognitive rut that prevents him from avoiding disaster under new circumstances. At this point, only those chickens born outside the groove or unconditioned can arrive at the conclusion: bell equals death.

Some chickens, a very few, cease to respond to the bell. If this were a human system, with rhetoric and eastehtics involved, a rhteoric and aesthetics based on a system that is no longer working, that is producing  results opposite to the wished for outcomes, then it might play out this way (Understand that I am complicating chickens here and simplifying human motivations to find a useful merge point):

Something is wrong with the way we answer the bell. That must be it.  Neither the bell nor the system can be wrong—the protocol or ritual is wrong. What happens? Surface reform!

The system is purified. Not only do the chickens answer the bell with greater vehemence (the swelling of systems under threat), but they do so with renewed spirit and built a whole poetics around the truth of the bell. New rituals of bell response are invented, or the old rituals are reinstated in their supposed original purity. The chickens are purifying their system, purging it of corruption (sound familiar?).

Meanwhile, the chickens who willfully refuse to answer the bell are seen as impious, as negative, as renegades, ad rejects. The necessary sacrifice of a demonized opposition is enacted: The rebels are put in chicken prison or pecked to death. Then, still with no food, it is decided that food is not the end all be all of the system. No!Answering the bell must not be for such selfish reasons! Better to implement the system on a “pure” level for system’s sake beyond any reward, for “virtue” is its own reward! It is beautiful  to die for the holiness of answering the bell, because it is right, and chickens must be willing to die for the principle of the bell.  Of course, while agreeing to this in principle, very few chickens take this to its proposed extreme, but those whose power is wrapped up in the old system either do so, or they find a perfect victim (the necessary sacrifice of the perfect and divine victim)—a chicken who can answer the bell perfectly, without fear, with perfect grace, exemplifying all the best that a chicken stands for. He dies! The rest hang back. They have no food. First, they eat the chickens who refused to answer the bell. After all, they are impious. They may even be the cause of why the bell no longer equals food, but, rather, death. Then they “purify” answering the bell rather than answering it in a truly concrete sense. It is an “ideal,” not a reality.

They find a way to still obey the “spirit” of the bell rather than just failing to respond to it. They are now doing what the rebellious chickens did except for all the “right reasons.” Intention here is everything. When agent and act no longer add up, they fall upon intention, but their rhetorical system does not handle intention well, so that there must always be a moral reason why things turned to shit: it is primitive and simplistic, but, in a culture where the rhetoric allows only for obedience to the bell, it has great effectiveness. In this sense the chickens have all become Kantian moralists: true morality is not compliance, but the motivational piety of virtue. A merge point has been made between the chickens who answered the bell and those that refused. The terms of refusal have been converted into the rhetoric of “pure” or “virtual compliance.

Now the chickens no longer answer the bell, but they have built a whole value system around answering the bell, “in spirit.” The impiety of the non-compliant chickens has been subsumed into the new orientation of the older value system. In the old days, their ancestors were legalistic and forgot the spirit of the bell. That’s why they died (yes, that’s it). The ones who refused to answer the bell were right to a point, but they did not conform to the system and needed to be sacrificed. They did not have the right spirit of “pure response.”They were disrespectful in their revolt. The “new” chicken lives by the spirit of the bell. He finds ways to expiate the sin of not answering to it by seeing himself as “answering to it” in spirit. Meanwhile, chickens who are part of the power establishment of the spirit, start eating other chickens. This is rationalized as a necessary and ongoing sacrifice to the spirit of the bell (it is nice that it also allows them a new food source). Cannibalism is rationalized through symbol systems and ritual. The bell means death, but spiritualized, it means heaven (heaven, as the end to history, and the beginning of eternity is a laudatory term for death) The chickens eat each other.  They are now conditioned not to answer the bell. If lucky, some impending victims might transcend conditioning and answer it in order to escape the certain death that awaits them. They would rather die answering the bell than by remaining to be eaten. They answer the bell and are fed instead of slaughtered. If the system triumphs enough, perhaps it survives by breeding some chickens for life and others for food. A few chickens might, out of desperation, answer to the bell and find the food again, but, by this time, they will be looked upon as outcasts. Actually answering the bell is now considered a sin! And so it goes, and goes and goes. One person’s piety is another’s impiety, and piety mingled with purity means holy war. We must be careful of the following words. They are always indicative of a system that is perceived as no longer functioning or that has gained such a level of function that it has created an unwanted sense of inertia. The words are: purity, solution, problem. Reform is another favorite.Wherever you see them you will hear the following arguments:

– The system must be fully implemented. What is wrong with the system is it has become too lax.
– The system has declined and must be restored to its true efficiency by some act of purgation (firing, lay-offs, resignations, rituals)
– The system is not wrong, its leaders are corrupt. Get new ones!
– The System must be overhauled, in point of fact, destroyed. (revolution)
– There never was a system and we were deluding ourselves. (nihilism, a distortion of scientific null positions).

Each one these suppositions has its own rhetoric, a rhetoric that seeks perfection and creates both trained capacities (the ability to negotiate and think inside that rhetoric) and trained incapacity (the inability to see anything except in terms of one’s own limited rhetoric).

In any successful evolution from one trained incapacity or capacity to another, there is a rhetorical and aesthetic merge point: the system stoops to its opposition and the opposition takes on enough coloration of the system it opposes to mate with it. I call this systemic mate selection. I had a student write a good paper on the “Starbucksing” of Dunkin Donuts, and the Dunking Donutsing of Starbucks. Starbucks has become less and less hang friendly, more like a factory for premium coffee. Gone are the poets and musicians. Dunkin donuts has become more “stylish”– offering poor man’s versions of specialty coffees and various up scale landscaping while keeping their garish colors as a semiotic badge of pride against the trademark “green” of the “eco-friendly” new age competitor. Starbucks does not seem to hire old or especially odd looking people, and that’s a nice rhetorical irony given their sustainability, new age aesthetics. This betrays their major target market: Americans who would never step foot in a dunkin donuts or a walmart, and are life style conservatives or leftists.  Both coffee empires play up their images as distinct while merging their actions.IN the same way slam poets and spoken word artists become academics. At the college grand slams, speakers boasted of their academic positions. Slam becomes more and more about a formula hardened by def jam, and related to no greater freedom or innovation than academic poetry.Academics start dressing down, give up their suits for the leisure wear that has status and “looks ” professional (but would have gotten them fired only forty years ago)Most of the time, the opposition is no true opposition but merely an aporia within the system itself (the slam artist comes from the same university background as the academic. It is largely in house, and both want the same thing: for their systems to be in power and for their group to decide who is in and out of the gates). Most human change is neither revolutionary nor evolutionary; it is based on the farce of trained capacity and incapacity. Of course this farce leads up to slaughtering the innocent, deifying the guilty, killing the prophets, and reducing genocide to theory. It also determines which schools of poetry get a share of controlling the prizes and the NEA.It allows for a professionalism in creative writing totally at odds with the Rimbaud, Ginsberg, Joyce, or Plath the professionals champion as great. They tame these creatures and do their best to pretend the life and the art are separate, and one can keep the art and forget the life because nothing makes a poet more acceptable than death.Baraka reads a just ok poem/rant at the 2002 Dodge festival in which he asks the question where were the Israelis when the twin towers went down, and he is stating a typical position of global leftism since the late forties (that Zionism and Jews are not one and the same) and he is vilified, condemned, and the politicians who put him in a position as representative pretend to be shocked as well as appalled. The secret message of such positions are: “you’re famous, Mr. Baraka, and we want to use your glitter to show how forward thinking we are, and how much we love the arts (they probably never read his poetry deeply) now please shut up and don’t say anything controversial.” Why? Because in his position as representative of New Jersey poetry, he is supposed to be uncontroversial or “controversial” in all the acceptable ways, and to say things in the most compromised form possible. Rants are not liked by people who worship Mary Oliver, and I was there and I saw them hating Baraka before he even mentioned the thing that got him “in trouble.” He represented a a maverick in the process of inclusive value. Rita Dove or Lucille Clifton would have been adored, and if they said the same line in a poem, no one would have noticed.  After all they were all so “post color and class,” and Baraka still insists that color, and, even more so class, cheapen and corrupt American discourse. Of course, just 8 years later, he is brought back in glory when the Dodge festival is held in Newark. It’s all high comedy, and any person who would be pure, and above this farce will be killed, slaughtered, ignored, or seen as an idiot (until the chickens in power realize they need his vicarious glamor and claim him as a hero in retrospect). We call rich people who are crazy eccentrics. We call poets who the status quo has decided to recognize “controversial.” By the time someone is called controversial, he or she is often already part of the establishment– that part that listed under acceptable renegades.

Read any argument in the literary world and you will find these ten forms of value, these five attitudes towards a troubled system, and the chicken parable represented. We are going to study the mechanisms of these arguments—their “value” their rhetoric, their piety and rituals of initiation, and expiation and, most importantly, their application to the manufacturing of power in the literary world triumphant, the literary world militant, and the literary world pending. I forgot to mention the most pernicious of values and the true way favors are bestowed: “Studied with.” If you scratch under the service of any grant winning list, you will find four in ten who are totally without connection to the judges. This connection has, at best, two degrees of separation as opposed to the usual six. Why should  we be shocked or appalled? After all, diners in New jersey are almost all owned by Greeks. Why should the literary establishment not be owned by birds of a feather and why should it not consolidate its power among known gate keepers? The problem arises when literary establishments claim it is greatness or quality that determines most awards and posterity. To an extent this is true. Don’t you think your friends are wonderful? We should not be upset by this state of affairs. It is not corrupt. What is corrupt is pretending it does not exist to the extent it does. LEtters of recommendation are only different in kind not purpose from the old hand written letters that allowed a young gentlemen access to the leading circles of society. Poets that rise from “obscurity” have some fully connected patrons: Emily Dickinson: daughter of a congressman, (family had Emerson as a house guest), and Emily had the chief editor of the Atlantic Monthly as a pen pal. John Clare was originally championed by Lords who thought themselves enlightened during a vogue for peasant poets. We could go on. Sans connections or the help of a patron, writers have one alternative: make their own alliances, throw their own party, and hope someone notices.

In the introduction to Unusual Woods (BlazeVOX 2010) you refer to your poems as “ghost sonnets.” Why “ghost sonnets?” And what prompted you to (a) select a definitive form, the sonnet, in which to write the poems and (b) to shave a line off the form?

I call them “ghost sonnets” because they’re missing the 14th line of a proper sonnet. That is, it’s getting later than it’s ever been and the sonnet is nearly over: do you know where your closure is? Writing poetry for me is a memento mori – the Latin for “remember that you must die” – as well as memento vivere – the Latin for “remember that you must live.” Living and dying in our lapsarian condition, we cannot close read our way out of our crisis of form. With regard to our lapsarian condition and the prospect of doing contemporary close reading, we need to ask: fallen from what and closer to what? We cannot, yet again, invent a mythical authority figure and then pretend we did not fashion that figure in our own likeness (like the New Critics, the New Formalists, or the New Sincerity movement in American poetry did). Certainly, I am not suggesting that we need more cynical irony. I think we need more sincere skepticism.

Once the center no longer holds, all readings become contests of meaning. Authority, intentionality, heroism, freedom, nation, progress and the rest of the Grand Narratives become suspect and, at best, conditional once we see the horrors the documents of the past have cataloged under the flags of these abstractions. All Grand Narratives are eschatological.

Heroically or mock-heroically, the un-whole sonnets in Unusual Woods try to face the ghosts of such radical doubts. To echo Leonard Cohen, the missing line in these ghost sonnets is the crack where the suspicious and conditioned light comes in. An innovative poetry, as Walt Whitman suggested, needs an innovative readership. These poems will possess the reader who finds a way to stand witness to their demands. The word is mightier than.

Why are British lords always hearing chains in the cellar? O, that’s right, the sun never sets on the British Empire. As the ubiquitous chain-rattling ghost haunts Victorian literature, so too form haunts content in contemporary American poetry. Form dreams of containing the message, the saying, or the idiomatic haggling over the transaction of meaning. Form dreams of mattering as a kind of play between aesthetical and ethical imperatives. However, sometimes form has a nightmare called a didactic political poem. Berrr! The truth lies hyphenated somewhere between aesthetical form-ethical content. Have you ever been hyphenated? Most uncomfortable!

To put it as pompously as a I can: I intervened in the rich multicultural sonnet tradition by inventing the 13-line sonnet form because I needed a practical way to determine when a poem was done without relying on the Romantic standby of intuition or epiphany or other gestures of closure. The limited lines offered a grid that freed me to attend to other aspects of the poem construction process such as how sound relates to sense within an aleatory composition. Finding the 13-line grid was certainly an example of limitations proffering freedom.

Foregoing, then, all “mythical authority figures” in which to ground the operations of form, ought we to construct new forms and/or salvage forms from the vestiges of tradition? Or, are we for the foreseeable future trapped in “ghost” forms?

I’d like to pose it as a question: can we forego all “mythical authority figures” or not? Briefly, since this is obviously a huge topic, I would just like to add that I do believe poetry would become little more than unreadable formal exercises without a basis in faith or without a reaching out to name the essence of a person, place, or thing. Can we even imagine or can our language even connote without a metaphysical arc? Why does language fail to communicate without the metaphysical sponsorship of human agency?

As a reader of the old forms of the European avant-gardes and American modernisms, I’ve learned the importance of being weary of prognosticators. Growing up in Romania under the last communist dictatorship in Europe, I developed a strong distaste for utopian programs. Every 5 year plan is a sacrifice of someone’s present. Indeed, the word “we” might be the most vicious utopia of all. I think readers read in order to gain the ghostly traces of the past through the wickets of language and image. Without the practice of freedom, the new is mere fashion, right?

“Howl” by Gene Tanta

In your introductory essay, you say that “[a]s a critic, [you are] faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content.” In my review, I took “object with aesthetic form” to mean that the “objectivity” and structure of your poems lend them a universal quality, in spite of their specificity and dependence on “cultural biography.” Your statement also suggests that you want your poems to be approached as aesthetic objects. Is this right, and, if so, how ought we to understand the relationship of these two aspects–universal and aesthetic?

For whatever my current understanding of my own intention is worth to the reader encountering my poems, I do want my poems to be read as aesthetic and formally considered objects. At the same time, I also want my poems to be read as political provocations that ask the reader to reflect on her ethical position in the narrative we make of the past. Some of the most interesting language I know lives in the hyphens connecting, while also separating, words like poet-artist, aesthete-propagandist, Romanian-American. Between is the new both!

I think your question about the prospect of a universal beauty goes to the heart of one of the most challenging aspects of writing as an experimental poet in the twenty first century: how does one use language? Since language operates as a denotative instrument in the service of function as well as a connotative artifact in the plot of illusion, how one uses language is not a simple matter of practicing sincere criticism or of practicing coy pun-work. Language lives between function and figuration trying to break up the street fight while also egging on the street fight.

Regarding the possibility of objectivity, allow me to quote Heinz von Foerster: “Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.” My love of language (language is the medium of wisdom after all) is born of my interest in the simple but not the simplistic, the fundamental but not the fundamentalist, the elemental but not the elementary. I think an ethics exists when one acknowledges the other. Once the subject relates to the object, I think we can begin the process of defining what is good and what is bad for individuals and for society. The problem, of course, persists into everyday living: how do we go about the practice of acknowledging the other and how do we meet the task of defining our categories?

On the prospect of a universal beauty, I’d just like to offer a few questions. How can beauty (however innovative its form, however good its self-perceived intention, however tripartite its ideology) be universal across races, classes, genders, times, temperaments, languages, grammars, habits, religions, and so on? The universe itself is a huge and mainly dark room (or stanza, the Italian word for room). What does it mean to make an adjective of such a little-known and mainly empty and cold room? Maybe the universe is missing its 14th line. What would a Mayan make of Candide?

To answer your question, certainly there is no universal beauty if this requires that all readers across time and space must agree on what is beautiful. On the other hand, to ask your readers, whom I believe you assume to be culturally diverse, to approach your poems aesthetically, assumes that reading aesthetically is possible. Certainly responses of readers will vary widely based on a variety of factors, but one could argue that the differences are finite and provisional. In other words, to say beauty is always personal and relative is not to say it is totally subjective. Wouldn’t the Mayan be able (mostly) to understand Candide if she took a class from a Voltaire scholar who catered to international students?

Right, cultural relativism is at the heart of this important debate. Certainly, our multicultural differences are “finite and provisional” but whom should we ask to tell us where these differences end and on what they depend? If beauty is “always personal and relative,” how do we approach the prospect of coming to a universal consensus on the meaning of beauty? Catering is such an interesting word. It reminds me of the multicultural phrase “underserved community” which, for me anyway, brings up concerns of the master-slave relationship with respect to how capital nurtures and even propagates the classist ideal of necessary difference, the boom and bust cycle of universal beauty.

I think your essay successfully sets up the dichotomy of reading aesthetically versus politically–a dichotomy that your poems show to be false. But in your essay you argue that culture influences aesthetics. Undoubtedly, we also consult aesthetic objects when we establish or alter cultural traditions. Why, then, don’t we simply collapse these categories? If the dialectic between aesthetics and culture is extremely fluid, is it necessary to uphold a distinction? Shouldn’t we just concede that all artistic objects are sites for “contests of meaning” (to borrow your phrase from earlier)? To put it another way, is there anything about the aesthetic that is outside of or impervious to power struggle?

As I suggest above, the biographical circumstances of my childhood in Romania have left me suspicious of centralized government. Romania transitioned pretty swiftly from a socialist dream in 1965 to a despotic regime in 1972. Since I only caught the despotic end of utopia, I tend to see public plans of commitment such as the various 5 year plans in the former USSR, Romania, China, India and so on as instruments poised to organize the public around that famously shared, and even more famously necessary, delusion: hope. We need hope as long as we conceive of time as a linear procession of good and bad luck.

That said, according to my 5 year plan, the fluid dialectic between the aesthetical and the political does not end. The motion between making special (art) and making clear (propaganda) flows in time because the human experiment flows in time. Whether that motion moves in a straight line from left to right or in a circle depends on whether you prefer Pepsi or Coke. My point is that we cannot choose without ideology rearing up its pretty head. Ideology is in the details.

I’ll be better able to answer your question after the apocalypse has brought history to its end. Only after human strife and pleasure is over, on the floodlit stage of the afterlife, can we determine whether we should collapse the categories of aesthetics and politics. However, since this is turning out to be the warmest decade in history, the end of days may be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the global warming trend continues, the human rights and social justice issue of the twenty first century may be our final 5 year plan.

“Figure on Yellow” by Gene Tanta

What were you thinking when you wrote “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh”? This poem stands out both in its line length and its (seemingly) overt autobiographical undertones. So I was struck by its uniqueness. On the other hand, I anticipate that method by which your “cultural biography” shaped this poem might be representative of a similar method in the other poems.

Like Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, Vasko Popa, Frank O’Hara, Kent Johnson, Patricia Smith, I certainly use the autobiographical register but I profess no one-to-one ratio between the speakers in my poems and my life experiences. “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh,” like most poems in Unusual Woods, (“My father did not invent fire” is a notable exception) have been pared down and built upon again and again. Whether expository or creative, writing is very much a process for me.

As a writer interested in the marginalia and redux of consciousness, I know I cannot know my own intentions. That said, some of the material in the “Back in Romania…” poem does borrow, stress, and tweak my own life experiences as a boy growing up in Romania. The formal rule of 13-line stanzas explains the longer line length: the story had to fit within the 13-line capsule.

Yes, you’re right! The process of tapping my cultural biography (or the unconscious authority of the force of memory) flows as a theme throughout these otherwise highly divergent morsel-sized poetic stanzas, rooms, universes. Where’s the fire? The urgency is in the old paradox: we die while we live. There’s the fire. Now run, sentence, run.

André Breton claimed surrealism puts life in the service of art. Surrealism asks artists and poets to make it realer than real, hyper real, or extra real. Such an understanding of the unconscious haunts these odd 13-line universes. These poems listen to how you read them; they listen with the cut and paste of idiom and image. It is the hurry up of scissors’ work. It is the hush and clang of bodiless souls associating with their kinfolk of understanding.

Or as Charles Simic puts it: “I’m a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs. Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves. Not many people seem to notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.”

Recently, there have been several articles on THEthe Poetry Blog on surrealism in poetry, and I am dissertating on this topic. Is it simply the cut-and-glue process that makes your poetry surreal, or are there other elements at work? Simic’s comment would suggest not process, but mimesis is the primary function.

Certainly, I seek to create uncanny effects with my poems: effects that both ring the doorbell of childhood but also ring the jilted note of the unfamiliar. I seek to create new and memorable effects of the new and memorable real. Like any writer, I do this partly through craft elements such as imagery, setting, character, and partly through my capability to live with not knowing. Mimesis is a process of mishearing in a productive way. Was it Tristan Tzara or Eminem who said “thought is made in the mouth”? Anyway, I like to listen with my imagination.

When writing and revising, do you strive for the surreal, or is it only an afterthought?

Surreal effects are the afterthoughts of language, more like it. Walter Benjamin has a theory that all words in all languages are onomatopoetic, readers only have to do the work of figuring out how sound relates (or used to relate) to signification in light of the value system of each language. To borrow the syntax of a bumper sticker: “chance operations happen.” The task, if you like, of poets and readers is to notice the odd rubbing going on between sound and sense. I like to watch words. Not many people notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.

The Surrealists often spoke of the marvelous (which might be considered a version of the sublime) as the end of their methods. Do you concur that something marvelous or sublime happens when certain conditions are met in the text? Does this relate in any way to how you understand the aesthetic aspect of your poetry?

Dada interests me more than Surrealism. However, within Surrealism, its anarchic tendencies seem more interesting to me than its fetishistic tendencies (which American marketing has employed with such gusto). For instance, Breton had another concept called “convulsive beauty” which transgresses the boundaries of formal logic as well as the canonical categories of Beauty. Convulsive beauty, by retooling the pathology of hysteria, queers aesthetic and political norms. Like Dada, hysteria (applied by the Surrealists not as a pathological diagnosis but as an instrument to destabilize categories) is that “which escapes definition.” With my creative work, I seek to make the possible more possible. This is the only kind of new I know.

“Flowers” by Gene Tanta


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herman Melville doesn’t announce the ambition of Moby-Dick directly. He kind of sneaks it in. It comes in late and sideways.

At the start the feeling is almost haphazard, and Ismael says, as if in afterthought, “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery parts of the world.” It’s imagined as a minor event in “the grand programme of Providence,” a little headline lost between “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States” and “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.” When the ambition is announced, it’s done almost obliquely. It’s done as if the narrator had lingered a little longer than necessary in the library, hoping somebody else would write the book so he wouldn’t have to: “As yet, however,” he says, “the sperm whale, scientific or poetic, lives not complete in any literature … As no better man advances to take this matter in hand, I hereupon offer my own poor endeavors.”

It’s more admission than announcement. It’s a cautious, carefully phrased version of what Walt Whitman wrote, when Whitman, the endless self-promoter, repeatedly claims in poetry and prose, essay and interview that his goal with Leaves of Grass was to put himself and his country, a whole living person and a wide, ever-undulating democracy, into a poem. Melville’s aim is no less ambitious, to put a whole living whale into a book.

Melville isn’t quite so brash to sing of himself, though, or to equate directly himself with the country as a whole. He worries, also, that his ambition will fail, that his picture of the whale will “remain unpainted at the last.” He is always aware he’s always on the verge of the whole thing breaking down, but the ambition is there. Beating underneath. It acts as the will to will it onward, the drive to make it work, a promise to try to do something great, the stakes that are high enough to make it worth while even if the whole thing fails.

Ambition, all by itself, makes the work a thing of value.

There’s so much out there, so much art that doesn’t promise anything. That makes no claim, and no attempt at anything. We’re awash in pop and flutter, blog and clutter. It’s not that little works can’t be great, whether they’re chapbooks or minimalist novellas or graffiti, and it’s not that least important texts of an era, its disposable and mass market texts, can’t actually be really interesting, but there’s no effort, no attempt so great I should yearn for it to succeed.

There are, of course, several very legitimate critiques of such ambition-driven books, of works that weigh this much and have this size. Feminists say phallus. Freudians say ego. Both comments can be kind of true, I think. Both are fair critiques. Megaworks can have the hubris of Manifest Destiny. But ambition, even by itself, even with nothing else sustaining it, can be, for me, a source of value. The scope and scale attempted, even if it fails, means, at least, there’s an attempt at something important, to be something significant.

Put it this way: If I read a single poem and it’s no good, all I can say, I think, is it’s no good. If I read Louis Zukofsky’s “A” and I hate it, at least I can say he was trying to do something important.

I’ve tried and failed to read Zukofsky‘s 803-page, 40-year poem several times. I don’t know that I’ve even gotten to the middle, though I flipped ahead far enough I know, towards the end, it devolves (?) into musical scores. The first time I picked it up and tried to read I was in a cafe and the waitress, an older lady, asked me if the sequel was B, which basically sums up the work for me.

I mean, I know there are passages in “A” I have found moving and meaningful and riveting —

“Love speaks: ‘in wracked cities there is less action,
Sweet alyssum sometimes is not of time, now
Weep, love’s heir, rhyme not how song’s exaction
Is your distraction — related is equated
How else is love’s distance approximated.”


“‘You write a strange speech.’ ‘This.'”


“– Clear music —
Not calling you names, says Kay,
Poetry is not made of such things,
Music, itch according to its wrongs,
Snapped old catguts of Johan Sebastian,
Society, traduction twice over.”

— and I find it interesting how World War II breaks out in the poem, and I can tell you something at least of why people who think it’s important think it’s important —

“Lower limit speech
Upper limit music


— but I don’t know that I can argue that it is. I read it, though, and try again because of the ambition, because, even if it fails, “A” seems like it’s trying to do something serious, something important, and because it seems like it’s making, as a work, a promise to be worth while to me. It is or has the air of a grand experiment, of something that can be believed in, invested in, even as it seems to falter and fail.

Even as I struggle with Zukofsky, I find I can believe in him based even on so slight of a thing as ambition. I find myself willing myself to want this experiment to endure, to want to believe, like Lincoln at Gettysburg, to make the comparison between the work and the nation, a comparison Walt Whitman would love, that something “so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

There’s something that’s consecrating about the struggle. There’s something worthwhile about the effort even if it fails.

Which is why, and I know I’ve come here the long way round, I’m disappointed with Sufjan Stevens. This album he’s released, Age of Adz, is not a bad album. It’s not. But it marks, for Stevens, an abandonment of a project that was Whitmanian in its ambition, that was, like Leaves of Grass and Moby-Dick, an ambitious attempt to put a whole country into a work of art. There are not a lot of efforts on this scale, but Stevens, this indie musician who was known, at one point, for wearing wings in concert and signing surprisingly religious songs, started something with his “Fifty States Project.”

With Michigan, in 2003, he started a work that promised to contain a country. A map of a place that is an idea and a feeling, a vision and an angst, our home, the place half known and half remembered and misremembered, mythologized and reinterpreted, the place where we are lost.

In Illinois, in 2005, he continued that. The map moved outward and Stevens started to show us the shape of the country he felt, beautiful and strange, scary, sad and mournful. I know, for me, part of my affinity for the work was the way what it described was the home I’ve known, the country I’ve lived in — this was no Whitman ebullience, but a county of serial killers to feel sorry for, of factories as empty as suicides, cities which were once great, and this was no Melvillian pursuit of transcendence, but a country of UFOs to wonder at and miss when they’re gone, of bible studies where we pray over people with cancer but nothing happens — but besides that, ignore that, the work was a promise of scale. This work was claiming to attempt to do everything that can be done with the art form, to be big enough to be important, to try, try to take the whole scope and scale of what we know, all fifty states of our experience, and put it in a series of albums.

Now he’s abandoned it. Two albums, a cycle of songs about an interstate, if you want to count that, and that’s it for the Fifty States.

It’s like the car broke down on the first day of a road trip.

Stevens is free, of course, to produce what he wants to produce, and if it was a gimmick, as he’s said, then it was a gimmick. But I was willing to trust, when it was clear he was trying to do something worth doing. I was willing to engage, when there was this promise of vistas. Without that effort, that attempt at greatness, that attempt to do what Whitman did or Melville did, to get a whole man, a whole whale, a whole life or country into a work, I don’t know that I’m convinced it’s worth my attention.

I thought Sufjan was trying to do something.

Drawing courtesy of Matt Kirsh, who is, ambitiously, drawing a picture for every page of Moby-Dick

Can a good poem be so intellectual that most readers don’t get it, and is not “getting it” an impediment to enjoying the poem? Hell, I sure hope not.One of my favorite poets is Wallace Stevens. I will admit I do not get Wally. As a young man, I fell in love with his verbal confidence. He “conjured” me (alluding here to a slightly better poet than Wally). I hate snobbery, but not if it can earn its lofty perch, and sneer at the masses because it is truly beautiful. The snobbery of gate keepers and young poets trying to make a name for themselves makes me ill. It is sad because it is fearful snobbery (I must own the gates) or premature snobbery (I have been published in the Paris Review; I am destined to be a professor who is tenured and on anti-depressants).

In terms of Stevens, I was smitten and terrified by the same thing the people seemed smitten and terrified by in regard to Jesus: “He speaks with authority.” That vatic voice, that voice which flows from a mind and aesthetic impersonality so vast that I can no longer care about sincerity, or insincerity—that is what thrilled me, and I no longer cared what he meant. I was enraptured by what the Irish critic, Dennis Donaghue called “the gibberish of the vulgate.”

Years later, I was able to see some of the mechanisms of thought and feeling in Stevens and I said to myself: “Joe, you can now sound out the idol, and make a more judicious appraisal on your hero. You can sit back and see his faults, and still admire him, albeit, without fear and trembling.” I was wrong.

Being wrong, I turned to Lacan. Why not? If you are wrong, it is best to turn to the French. They have been making correctives almost as long as they have been making wine. So I looked at Stevens in an extra poetic way.

Snob A: The one who, through his supreme talent, must find a rage to order, must ignore the rabble, must be an asshole in the service of heaven.

Snob B: The one who called Gwendolyn Brooks a “nigger,” who enjoyed every drab pleasure of old shoe Harvard; the one who could behave like a lesser Tom Buchanan out of The Great Gatsby: a man so larded with his self-regard, with his cigars, with his trips to Florida, with his success, that he made Hemingway a hero (supposedly Hemingway punched him out); the one who had no trouble living in an icy marriage, and resembled a sort of well done beef Wellington: a cliché snob, a snob fit only for graduate students who have pulled a Kafka and transformed the Beef Wellington of the first half of the 20th century into the couscous of this more “enlightened” age.

Snob C: The one who, like all of us, wants to be a rabbit as king of the ghosts, who wants the cat of death to be a mere bug in the grass; the one who is lofty because he knows at the end of the day, that he, too, must end—and never well. No one ends well. We lie. We die. Lord, have mercy on us!

I took all three of these snobs into consideration, tossed them into the blender, and realized that my aesthetic test for music when I was 13 still applied: if I play a song one hundred times in a row, and, on the last playing, it still has an effect, then it is part of my synaptic hit parade and can never be vanquished. It is the love Shakespeare speaks of when he says “No! It is an ever fixed mark!” This “fixed mark” only exists within instability. It is what the eye or ear or heart seeks and finds while everything else is wobbling. It is a lie, but such a beautiful lie that God (like the gods with Theseus) understands that our lie is wanton in the best sense, and “hath a spirit precluding law.” Such a lie allows us to retrieve what has been lost to the underworld. It is the necessary lie of rising from the dead:

just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound:
And thus it is that what I feel,
here in this room, desiring you.

Thinking of your blue -shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna.

Helen Vendler made a whole book showing Wallace Stevens was not heatless. Of course he was heartless—all the better, because that meant his liver, and kidneys, and wonderful eyes, and faithfulness (almost) to the tropes of 19th century poetry (the best 19th century American poetry) brought him to a place where only snobbery A and snobbery C mattered. I hope after all these years, I still love Wallace Stevens.

Picture Credit.

In The New Tourism, Mathews lets the loose cohesion of his poems suggest profundities that seem unlikely coming from often mundane subjects. His poems are cohesive because of formal structure and theme, but it is a deliberately incoherent kind of cohesion. The effect is delicate and oblique, and it is growing on me.

Mathews likes wandering off the topic (or, really, having no real topic, no subject of discourse), a familiar strategy of Ashbery and other New York poets with whom he is associated:

For me the identification of trees has always been a puzzle, one not really made easier by consulting the tree book inside my house, where no trees are. I can certainly remember the caramel color of beech leaves in fall, the cropped silhouettes of plan trees along the highway . . . the purpled boughs of Judas trees where no swallow ever perches.

But do swallows ever perch? It seems that every swallow I’ve seen out of its caked nest is part of an ever-changing, bug-eating swarm—a puzzle too mobile to decipher, tumbling and soaring over the cross of a church in Tuscany or Touraine, with pink evening light inside the bell of the air, an image that saddens me when I return to a highway leading north into the night think and empty as caramel custard.

Gorgeous images without a narrative thread to speak of. The speaker digresses smoothly and almost imperceptibly from trees to birds to cake. It’s pleasant and deceptive.

That is part of a prose poem called “Crème Brûlée,” which is not, despite the title, really about custard. Mathews is only teasing you with references to caramel; he’s also thrown in quite a bit about swallows and wine and modern life and the dark side of the psyche:

There are no demons inside you, just your addiction to any puzzle that will addle your contentment, like salt in caramel. You swallow your last glass of wine and return, not unhappily, to the highway.

All the themes have recurred and been recapitulated, but the poem’s point is elusive. Yet, we can’t very easily write off all these wonderfully suggestive images as meaningless, and there does not seem to be any deliberate (and certainly no malicious) trickery. Something’s going on even in the absence of argument and story.

How do the poems gain their highly suggestive character? It is through a highly developed sensitivity to both the literal sensations of the body and the “sensations” of thought. In The New Tourism, Mathews is a conscientious, intelligent hedonist. He is a wine lover, food connoisseur and lover of picturesque landscapes. (If the ability to write breathtaking description is a sign of a skilled poet, he got skills.)

Mathews the hedonist is especially into gastronomic pleasures. In addition to the wine-centric haiku, Halal lamb, and Genoese lunch, the book’s first section, a single poem called “Butter and Eggs: a didactic poem,” is a rather simple litany of about five different ways of making eggs. My favorite part is the scrambled eggs:

When the fat sizzles and smokes
at maximum heat, the skillet withdrawn from the flame,
the eggs are poured into its center and there with a fork or wooden spatula
immediately stirred and turned so that no part of them
stays long in contact wit the scorching surface but the whole
is uninterruptedly mixed and remixed until, attaining a soft solidity,
it can be folded upon itself and promptly flipped onto a plate.

Mathews is just talking about how to cook eggs. He’s paying really close attention to both the delicate things eggs are the delicate process of cooking them. What for? Because it’s frickin’ awesome. Shut up and enjoy the eggs.

And if you don’t appreciate these simple activities, you’ll never appreciate the highly oblique pleasures of Mathews’ complicated, mid-section poems. Whereas in Part I (“Eggs and Butter”) the subject matter itself provided savory delights, in Part II form and structure are the source of titillation. This is evident in “Waiting for Dusk”:

Whoever in the span of his life is confronted by the word “pomegranate”
will experience a mixture of feelings: a longing to see at least once the face
of a Mediterranean god or nymph or faun; the memory of an old silver mirror
decorated with images of varied fruits; a regret at never having known the spell
of a summer picnic ending with the taste of acrid seeds spat over the bridge
parapet . . .

. . .
. . . But here now is Simon, with his smiling silly face
from which he extracts tough seeds from his teeth with one awkward forefinger, a spell
of not unsympathetic bad manners that, if truth be told, is a mirror

of our own, perhaps more furtive acts. Then he puts on his mask, made of mirror-
like chromed metal, and I think, why, he could face an kill Medusa! Any weather
has its charm, even the green tempest surrounding her writing snakes that spell
death to the unwary traveler, snakes like a wreath of leeks in a Dutch still life where a pomegranate
cut in two glows idly near the table edge.

It’s a sestina. And it wanders. But that’s what sestinas are supposed to do. The form brings you back to an elusive center, which extends and builds the theme even while the strictures of the form almost inevitably lead to incoherence. (In other words, sestinas tend naturally toward cohesion without coherence.) In Mathews’ sestina, we are washed into meditation by the long lines, complicated sentence structures, striking details (like an “unvarnished table,” below) and the nostalgic, pastoral atmosphere. Profound philosophical gestures lurk near the surface and leap out suddenly but dissipate in the contingencies of life:

. . . Remember the pomegranate
sliced on the unvarnished table, I tell myself, that’s something sharp and real! But the spell

of the season and the melancholy hour, sweetened and damped with wine, spell
another revolution of my afternoon regrets, far from Mediterranean . . .

Ultimately, there is a kind of coherence to poems like “Crème Brûlée” and “Waiting for Dusk” that is reached through an almost aesthete-like attentiveness to sensation and thought. And this includes not only literal sensations but human thoughts and discourse. The twists and turns of the mind are like the delicate flavors of breakfast.