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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.

There is an inwardness so vast, so total, that it has a true integrity—not the pretentiousness of artistic temper, not the vanity of professional mysticism, not the neurosis of social anxiety disorder, but a forthrightness, an honorable, hourly withdrawal from the world that seems, for lack of a better word—ecstatic. Emily Dickinson’s passes this test fro me so that, beyond her artistic temper, and beyond her neurotic social anxiety, and beyond her “Bride of calvary” routine, her retreat seems legitimate, necessary, vital. It shames me. It makes me want to be a better man, though not enough to change my life.

Dickinson’s gate keepers make me vomit. Her worshipers make me want to kick them in the shins. Her poems have the same effect upon me as the transports of saints. Before them I want to droop my head, and surrender like the unicorn, and let the little tough guys from the middle ages sink their spears into me. I sense the true virgin—not the prude, not the sexless, shrill old maid of 19th century households (though she wears those uniforms), but the true virgin—intense, blessed with a mystical and erotic chastity.

Poem 258 by Emily Dickinson stirs this sense in me, but not as an isolated particular. I do not read poems in isolation. They leap their borders, and commune with other acts of language, with other slants of light. My favorite poems do not exist as singular deeds.. This is not my absolute favorite by Emily, but it comes close (My favorite begins “I dreaded that first robin so”). 258 is one of her more canonical poems, and Harold Bloom has explicated it well. I do not compete with Harold, but I am taking it from a different angle.

Poem 258

There’s a certain slant of light,
Winter afternoons—
that oppresses, like the heft
of Cathedral tunes—

Heavenly hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the meanings, are—

None may teach it—any—
“tis the Seal Despair—
An Imperial affliction,
Sent us of the air—

When it comes, the landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, “tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—

When I first read this poem, I was fifteen, and reading Saint Theresa of Avila’s account of her vision:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful – his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim…I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of his goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

The imagery in Dickinson’s poem seemed familiar to me— the certain slant of light I had experienced in countless works of art from the high masters. A “certain slant of light” does not have to be the product of knowing the New England Winter. It can as readily come from having read deeply and looked at reproductions of the Florentine Masters (especially when one considers how much Emily loved the Brownings, and their Roman retreat, and that her father’s amazing library no doubt contained such picture books). Her comparing this slant to the heft of cathedral tunes, making this light as heavy as the bar of a cross, and creating one of the most wonderful examples of synesthesia in American poetry… well, I took all that for granted.

Being a Catholic, it did not seem complex or baffling to me—but wonderfully accurate. Light when it is slanted is always certain, and seems to have mass—like a board of wood, and, given the imperial despair in the later part of the poem, and given my own inundation in both the mystical and erotic agony of the Catholic Church, I had no trouble with this. I found it remarkable because it seemed so precise—as true and as ordinary as Theresa seeing angels, and yet it was coming from a woman in the heart of the Puritan tradition— a tradition that did its best to tame all such erotic/mystical transports. I remember sitting there and thinking: “Wow, I love this poem. She must have read Theresa of Avila, too.”
This sort of reading is heretical, as heretical as Emily. The mind selects its own anthology, paring off poets who no self respecting scholar would place in the same room, but I think it not an unlikely pairing. Both Theresa and Emily were practical women. Though Emily reduced her world to her house, she was convivial, even wickedly funny within its protective borders, and St. Theresa had just as wicked and satirical a sense of humor as she rode about Spain, founding convents and reforming the church. Both had the gift of mystics: to normalize the extraordinary, and to make extraordinary the common, the lowly:

“heavenly hurt it gives us—
we can find no scar,”

“the pain is not bodily but spiritual”

“None may teach it—any
’tis the Seal despair—
An imperial affliction,
Sent us of the air”

“The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

The imperial seal of despair, Dickinson’s whole take on despair is not far removed from St. John’s Dark night of the Soul, or Theresa’s sense of a pain so excessive yet more desirable than any earthly pleasure. Mystics slaughter the dialectical oppositions by investing the “value” of one extreme of the dialectic with the qualities of the other. Despair is, in Emily’s mystical realm, a sort of ultimate triumph. The first is last and the last first, not to reverse priority, but to re-invest the dialectical oppositions with their original spiritual freshness and force.

We should not be surprised by the eroticism of Dickinson or Theresa, and just as I know my imposition of my Catholic upbringing upon this poem is not one of scholarly argument, but of a chance leap in my mind between these great woman figures, so, too, the imposition of contemporary ideas of sexuality, Emily’s lesbianism, is a limited reading of her work. To look for evidence of her sexuality is like 19th-century scholars looking for historic proof of Jesus. It somewhat misses the mark. Emily’s eroticism, and much of it could be interpreted as towards the female, is ordinary and even defining as part of the mystical tradition. Her love of Keats would make her prone to such mystical oxymorons. In such a realm, the pure music becomes the spiritual ditties of no tone. In Dickinson, chastity, virginity becomes the purest form of eroticism. It makes sense within the verbal construct of mystical oxymoron. In this realm, it is most divine horse sense.

I am not through with this poem. In a 2nd post I hope to write, I’ll remember how I came to know that Elizabeth Barrett Browning (more so than even Robert) was of great importance to Emily, as was Keats, and that the famous couple’s abiding interest in the Franciscan heretics of the mystical persuasion may have had as much to do with her refusal to officially surrender to faith as any other reason proffered.

My overall point is that the leaps and landscapes we enter through reading are every bit as real as actual locales and travels.

Poem In Which Spring Returns (or French peasants who are really from Cobble Hill)
Melissa Sheppard

Spring comes
or maybe it doesn’t,

or I come—a sort of spring,
painful shoots sticking out of the ground—
a woman of shoots, and each one painful.

This is the tulip song I sing to my daughter.
I say daughter: tulips must break soil.
Twiggy stuff pokes the ground

from below, while
sun spikes the ground from above:
it’s all a spiky operation—

just as you drew in your first grade class!
A world of piercings!

things piercing and being pierced—
that is as good a theory as any other—

out of being: a sort of ongoing power point demonstration:
Poke the pertinent facts! Say: grass! tree! Woman bending over
in imitation of a peasant in France.

She is not in France. She is in Cobble Hill.
She is not a peasant. She is a lobbyist
for a multi media corporation:

And this is her husband Swen who makes
metal sculptures for the lawns of major rock stars.
And this is her time off, when she

imitates a peasant and admires her husband’s
art installations:

This, too, is an installation.
We will add yoga and a vegan diet.
We will call it a life style.

It is a tulip that has thrust its spear of green
up through the body of earth: someone will say

phallic and dismiss it. I never think of a penis when I
think of Tulips. But suppose it was a penis balancing

a tea cup, and the wind spilled the tea all over this page,
and we were stained by longing, and went forth into the garden
to learn how to be more at home with nature, or to

calm down after a busy week of being successful?
Ah, I think I’ve come to the point of my argument!
After being successful, we return to the earth,

or the earth returns to us, or something returns.
I like the idea that something returns.
I think its a good idea.

What is Sheppard doing here? First, I think she is taking some of the goodies of Dadaism and absurdity, and comic shtick, and being playful. Second I think she is affirming the very cliché ideas she tweaks, something comedy does. It affirms by tweaking; it doesn’t just destroy or mock. Comic perspective takes our sacred categories and dismantles them for the sake of making us have a perspective by incongruity. In this case, the poet implies “being”, as a power point demonstration. I like her sense of play. There is even a little nod to E.E Cummings in these proceedings—of what I call speculative verse. I define speculative verse as follows: verse in which the poet conjectures, improvises, steps out of the usual structures and categories of logical priority not to destroy meaning, or artistic effect, or artistry, but, rather to relieve the system of some pressure, to let off steam, to return to a sense of play. This conjectural, playful verse is an evolution from the conversational poems of Wordsworth, the sort of poem that has dominated the last couple centuries: subjective consciousness on the page, looking at, or experiencing something outside the self yet in reference to the self, while , at the same time, allowing consciousness to roam. The common denominator between poets as diverse as those in language poetry and those writing normative free verse in which emotion and subjective consciousness hold sway is this sense of the improvised. It is rarely if ever truly improvised.

Part of the 20th century revolution in poetry was an interest in parody, pastiche, send ups, cut ups, a constant recapitulation of tired tropes in such a way as to reinvigorate them, and this poem is no exception. If I had to put Melissa’s poem in a poetry camp, it would be with those who have learned to use the modes of Dada, the surreal, the ditzy, the childish, the incongruous, the comic, the speculative, without abandoning hope of emotional effect or depth. If we look at poetry aesthetics as tools rather than as truths, then everything becomes available to us—all the thousands of years of utterance. Sheppard says part of this poem’s inspiration comes from the great ditzy yet pointed ramblings of thirties screw ball actresses like Carole Lombard, the stream of consciousness ramblings of Gracie Allen—as much from them as from French Dadaists. She is a conscious artist. When she begins “Spring comes,” she is not unaware of Chaucer but she quickly adds instability to that notion by having the voice of the poem make a corrective: “Or maybe it doesn’t.” She says she moves through the poem in a speculative way. The daughter offers a foil to the traditional parent/child routine. She sees the poem as an incongruous melding of disparate “routines” that lead to an ancient idea of Spring as return, but which make that idea unstable. Return means death as well as new life. Spring hurts—it pokes through structures. It intrudes. Sheppard also plays with identity: the pastoral peasant who is really a lobbyist for a multi media corporation, the idea that a child’s drawing of a spiky sun and spiky shoots is a truly accurate depiction of how things are interpenetrative—piercing and being pierced. The “this is” trope conveys the “being” as a power point demonstration. A lot is happening in this poem, and it moves, flits about, but has an overall tone of someone being wise by pretending to be witless—the Socratic “towards” rather than “at” wisdom.
Here’s an excerpt of a poem by Rosanna Warren, very different, but also using a “towards” rather than “at” wisdom/technique—in this case, a series of seemingly random questions. The poem is called “A Questionnaire for Bernard Chaet”:

Can a scar emit light?

Can objects slide off the curved surface of earth?

And later in the poem:

Can a sword of sunlight crack rocks?

Have we lost the sky, looking down?

Were we ever safe here?

Warren’s seemingly random and even childish or absurd questions create a cumulative effect anything else but childish. So here’s the challenge:

1. Write a Poem like Melissa Sheppard in which you flit from one thing to the other, yet, somehow, create an overall implication of a meaning, a mood, a tone.

2. Write a poem like Warren’s in which the seeming randomness of questions adds up to a serious theme, or implication (In Warren’s case—the instability of everything).
Good luck.

Home work: YouTube Gracie Allen and Carole Lombard. Listen to what they do to language. Read the last section of Job with God’s questions. Did Warren have these in mind? How do they differ? How are they the same?

V. Art Appreciation

Have you heard the Taoist tale of the Taming of the Harp?

Once in the hoary ages in the Ravine of Lungmen stood a Kiri tree, a veritable king of the forest. It reared its head to talk to the stars; its roots struck deep into the earth, mingling their bronzed coils with those of the silver dragon that slept beneath. And it came to pass that a mighty wizard made of this tree a wondrous harp, whose stubborn spirit should be tamed but by the greatest of musicians. For long the instrument was treasured by the Emperor of China, but all in vain were the efforts of those who in turn tried to draw melody from its strings. In response to their utmost strivings there came from the harp but harsh notes of disdain, ill-according with the songs they fain would sing. The harp refused to recognise a master.

At last came Peiwoh, the prince of harpists. With tender hand he caressed the harp as one might seek to soothe an unruly horse, and softly touched the chords. He sang of nature and the seasons, of high mountains and flowing waters, and all the memories of the tree awoke! Once more the sweet breath of spring played amidst its branches. The young cataracts, as they danced down the ravine, laughed to the budding flowers. Anon were heard the dreamy voices of summer with its myriad insects, the gentle pattering of rain, the wail of the cuckoo. Hark! a tiger roars,—the valley answers again. It is autumn; in the desert night, sharp like a sword gleams the moon upon the frosted grass. Now winter reigns, and through the snow-filled air swirl flocks of swans and rattling hailstones beat upon the boughs with fierce delight.

Then Peiwoh changed the key and sang of love. The forest swayed like an ardent swain deep lost in thought. On high, like a haughty maiden, swept a cloud bright and fair; but passing, trailed long shadows on the ground, black like despair. Again the mode was changed; Peiwoh sang of war, of clashing steel and trampling steeds. And in the harp arose the tempest of Lungmen, the dragon rode the lightning, the thundering avalanche crashed through the hills. In ecstasy the Celestial monarch asked Peiwoh wherein lay the secret of his victory. “Sire,” he replied, “others have failed because they sang but of themselves. I left the harp to choose its theme, and knew not truly whether the harp had been Peiwoh or Peiwoh were the harp.”

This story well illustrates the mystery of art appreciation. The masterpiece is a symphony played upon our finest feelings. True art is Peiwoh, and we the harp of Lungmen. At the magic touch of the beautiful the secret chords of our being are awakened, we vibrate and thrill in response to its call. Mind speaks to mind. We listen to the unspoken, we gaze upon the unseen. The master calls forth notes we know not of. Memories long forgotten all come back to us with a new significance. Hopes stifled by fear, yearnings that we dare not recognise, stand forth in new glory. Our mind is the canvas on which the artists lay their colour; their pigments are our emotions; their chiaroscuro the light of joy, the shadow of sadness. The masterpiece is of ourselves, as we are of the masterpiece.

The sympathetic communion of minds necessary for art appreciation must be based on mutual concession. The spectator must cultivate the proper attitude for receiving the message, as the artist must know how to impart it. The tea-master, Kobori-Enshiu, himself a daimyo, has left to us these memorable words: “Approach a great painting as thou wouldst approach a great prince.” In order to understand a masterpiece, you must lay yourself low before it and await with bated breath its least utterance. An eminent Sung critic once made a charming confession. Said he: “In my young days I praised the master whose pictures I liked, but as my judgement matured I praised myself for liking what the masters had chosen to have me like.” It is to be deplored that so few of us really take pains to study the moods of the masters. In our stubborn ignorance we refuse to render them this simple courtesy, and thus often miss the rich repast of beauty spread before our very eyes. A master has always something to offer, while we go hungry solely because of our own lack of appreciation.

To the sympathetic a masterpiece becomes a living reality towards which we feel drawn in bonds of comradeship. The masters are immortal, for their loves and fears live in us over and over again. It is rather the soul than the hand, the man than the technique, which appeals to us,—the more human the call the deeper is our response. It is because of this secret understanding between the master and ourselves that in poetry or romance we suffer and rejoice with the hero and heroine. Chikamatsu, our Japanese Shakespeare, has laid down as one of the first principles of dramatic composition the importance of taking the audience into the confidence of the author. Several of his pupils submitted plays for his approval, but only one of the pieces appealed to him. It was a play somewhat resembling the Comedy of Errors, in which twin brethren suffer through mistaken identity. “This,” said Chikamatsu, “has the proper spirit of the drama, for it takes the audience into consideration. The public is permitted to know more than the actors. It knows where the mistake lies, and pities the poor figures on the board who innocently rush to their fate.”

The great masters both of the East and the West never forgot the value of suggestion as a means for taking the spectator into their confidence. Who can contemplate a masterpiece without being awed by the immense vista of thought presented to our consideration? How familiar and sympathetic are they all; how cold in contrast the modern commonplaces! In the former we feel the warm outpouring of a man’s heart; in the latter only a formal salute. Engrossed in his technique, the modern rarely rises above himself. Like the musicians who vainly invoked the Lungmen harp, he sings only of himself. His works may be nearer science, but are further from humanity. We have an old saying in Japan that a woman cannot love a man who is truly vain, for their is no crevice in his heart for love to enter and fill up. In art vanity is equally fatal to sympathetic feeling, whether on the part of the artist or the public.

Nothing is more hallowing than the union of kindred spirits in art. At the moment of meeting, the art lover transcends himself. At once he is and is not. He catches a glimpse of Infinity, but words cannot voice his delight, for the eye has no tongue. Freed from the fetters of matter, his spirit moves in the rhythm of things. It is thus that art becomes akin to religion and ennobles mankind. It is this which makes a masterpiece something sacred. In the old days the veneration in which the Japanese held the work of the great artist was intense. The tea-masters guarded their treasures with religious secrecy, and it was often necessary to open a whole series of boxes, one within another, before reaching the shrine itself—the silken wrapping within whose soft folds lay the holy of holies. Rarely was the object exposed to view, and then only to the initiated.

At the time when Teaism was in the ascendency the Taiko’s generals would be better satisfied with the present of a rare work of art than a large grant of territory as a reward of victory. Many of our favourite dramas are based on the loss and recovery of a noted masterpiece. For instance, in one play the palace of Lord Hosokawa, in which was preserved the celebrated painting of Dharuma by Sesson, suddenly takes fire through the negligence of the samurai in charge. Resolved at all hazards to rescue the precious painting, he rushes into the burning building and seizes the kakemono, only to find all means of exit cut off by the flames. Thinking only of the picture, he slashes open his body with his sword, wraps his torn sleeve about the Sesson and plunges it into the gaping wound. The fire is at last extinguished. Among the smoking embers is found a half-consumed corpse, within which reposes the treasure uninjured by the fire. Horrible as such tales are, they illustrate the great value that we set upon a masterpiece, as well as the devotion of a trusted samurai.

We must remember, however, that art is of value only to the extent that it speaks to us. It might be a universal language if we ourselves were universal in our sympathies. Our finite nature, the power of tradition and conventionality, as well as our hereditary instincts, restrict the scope of our capacity for artistic enjoyment. Our very individuality establishes in one sense a limit to our understanding; and our aesthetic personality seeks its own affinities in the creations of the past. It is true that with cultivation our sense of art appreciation broadens, and we become able to enjoy many hitherto unrecognised expressions of beauty. But, after all, we see only our own image in the universe,—our particular idiosyncracies dictate the mode of our perceptions. The tea-masters collected only objects which fell strictly within the measure of their individual appreciation.

One is reminded in this connection of a story concerning Kobori-Enshiu. Enshiu was complimented by his disciples on the admirable taste he had displayed in the choice of his collection. Said they, “Each piece is such that no one could help admiring. It shows that you had better taste than had Rikiu, for his collection could only be appreciated by one beholder in a thousand.” Sorrowfully Enshiu replied: “This only proves how commonplace I am. The great Rikiu dared to love only those objects which personally appealed to him, whereas I unconsciously cater to the taste of the majority. Verily, Rikiu was one in a thousand among tea-masters.”

It is much to be regretted that so much of the apparent enthusiasm for art at the present day has no foundation in real feeling. In this democratic age of ours men clamour for what is popularly considered the best, regardless of their feelings. They want the costly, not the refined; the fashionable, not the beautiful. To the masses, contemplation of illustrated periodicals, the worthy product of their own industrialism, would give more digestible food for artistic enjoyment than the early Italians or the Ashikaga masters, whom they pretend to admire. The name of the artist is more important to them than the quality of the work. As a Chinese critic complained many centuries ago, “People criticise a picture by their ear.” It is this lack of genuine appreciation that is responsible for the pseudo-classic horrors that to-day greet us wherever we turn.

Another common mistake is that of confusing art with archaeology. The veneration born of antiquity is one of the best traits in the human character, and fain would we have it cultivated to a greater extent. The old masters are rightly to be honoured for opening the path to future enlightenment. The mere fact that they have passed unscathed through centuries of criticism and come down to us still covered with glory commands our respect. But we should be foolish indeed if we valued their achievement simply on the score of age. Yet we allow our historical sympathy to override our aesthetic discrimination. We offer flowers of approbation when the artist is safely laid in his grave. The nineteenth century, pregnant with the theory of evolution, has moreover created in us the habit of losing sight of the individual in the species. A collector is anxious to acquire specimens to illustrate a period or a school, and forgets that a single masterpiece can teach us more than any number of the mediocre products of a given period or school. We classify too much and enjoy too little. The sacrifice of the aesthetic to the so-called scientific method of exhibition has been the bane of many museums.

The claims of contemporary art cannot be ignored in any vital scheme of life. The art of to-day is that which really belongs to us: it is our own reflection. In condemning it we but condemn ourselves. We say that the present age possesses no art:—who is responsible for this? It is indeed a shame that despite all our rhapsodies about the ancients we pay so little attention to our own possibilities. Struggling artists, weary souls lingering in the shadow of cold disdain! In our self-centered century, what inspiration do we offer them? The past may well look with pity at the poverty of our civilisation; the future will laugh at the barrenness of our art. We are destroying the beautiful in life. Would that some great wizard might from the stem of society shape a mighty harp whose strings would resound to the touch of genius.

DOWNLOAD AND READ the rest of The Book of Tea here.

God save thee, my sweet boy!

My lord chief-justice, speak to that vain man.

Have you your wits? know you what ’tis to speak?

My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
To see perform’d the tenor of our word. Set on.

Exeunt KING HENRY V, & c

Master Shallow, I owe you a thousand pound.

Yea, marry, Sir John; which I beseech you to let me
have home with me.

That can hardly be, Master Shallow. Do not you
grieve at this; I shall be sent for in private to
him: look you, he must seem thus to the world:
fear not your advancements; I will be the man yet
that shall make you great.

I cannot well perceive how, unless you should give
me your doublet and stuff me out with straw. I
beseech you, good Sir John, let me have five hundred
of my thousand.

Sir, I will be as good as my word: this that you
heard was but a colour.

A colour that I fear you will die in, Sir John.

Fear no colours: go with me to dinner: come,
Lieutenant Pistol; come, Bardolph: I shall be sent
for soon at night.

Re-enter Prince John of LANCASTER, the Lord Chief-Justice; Officers with them

Go, carry Sir John Falstaff to the Fleet:
Take all his company along with him.

My lord, my lord,—
Lord Chief-Justice I cannot now speak: I will hear you soon.
Take them away.

Si fortune me tormenta, spero contenta.

Exeunt all but PRINCE JOHN and the Lord Chief-Justice

I like this fair proceeding of the king’s:
He hath intent his wonted followers
Shall all be very well provided for;
But all are banish’d till their conversations
Appear more wise and modest to the world.

And so they are.

The king hath call’d his parliament, my lord.

He hath.

I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France: I beard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleased the king.
Come, will you hence?



Spoken by a Dancer

First my fear; then my courtesy; last my speech.
My fear is, your displeasure; my courtesy, my duty;
and my speech, to beg your pardons. If you look
for a good speech now, you undo me: for what I have
to say is of mine own making; and what indeed I
should say will, I doubt, prove mine own marring.
But to the purpose, and so to the venture. Be it
known to you, as it is very well, I was lately here
in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your
patience for it and to promise you a better. I
meant indeed to pay you with this; which, if like an
ill venture it come unluckily home, I break, and
you, my gentle creditors, lose. Here I promised you
I would be and here I commit my body to your
mercies: bate me some and I will pay you some and,
as most debtors do, promise you infinitely.
If my tongue cannot entreat you to acquit me, will
you command me to use my legs? and yet that were but
light payment, to dance out of your debt. But a
good conscience will make any possible satisfaction,
and so would I. All the gentlewomen here have
forgiven me: if the gentlemen will not, then the
gentlemen do not agree with the gentlewomen, which
was never seen before in such an assembly.
One word more, I beseech you. If you be not too
much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make
you merry with fair Katharine of France: where, for
any thing I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat,
unless already a’ be killed with your hard
opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is
not the man. My tongue is weary; when my legs are
too, I will bid you good night: and so kneel down
before you; but, indeed, to pray for the queen.

  1. Sir John Falstaff is Shakespeare’s greatest invention.
  2. Sir John Falstaff is great because his wit is as vast as his waist, and his prose is some of Shakespeare’s finest, which makes it also, some of the finest ever written.
  3. James Joyce is but an offspring of blustering Falstaff.
  4. Leopold Bloom is Falstaff recast as a tragic hero. Stephen Dedalus is Hal (Henry V).
  5. Leopold Bloom cannot compare to Falstaff. (Though Dedalus can to Hal.)
  6. People lament that Shakespeare was not born in the 20th century to make films.
  7. Shakespeare did however make films in the 20th century.
  8. His name was Orson Welles.
  9. Orson Welles’ greatest film may well be his last: Chimes at Midnight.
  10. It took Orson Welles many years to complete the film, owing to his Falstaff-like poverty, due to his Falstaff-like debts, and certainly unhelped by his Falstaff-like obesity. Welles would shoot scenes and edit privately, which has resulted in a masterpiece of a film that is not only hard to find, but at times difficult to watch. The sound is often distorted (sometimes only slightly). The picture can go wonky.
  11. Joe Weil once told me that to understand Hamlet you need only combine Hal and Falstaff into the same person.
  12. Harold Bloom has quoted Orson Welles as saying he was born a Hamlet in America, and retired in Europe as Falstaff.
  13. Chimes at Midnight is indeed hard to find on VHS or DVD.
  14. Chimes at Midnight can in fact be found on VHS and DVD, through, and other online websites.
  15. Chimes at Midnight can be watched in its entirety in decent quality on YouTube.
  16. If you have not seen Chimes at Midnight, you should go to YouTube and watch it.
  17. If you have already seen Chimes at Midnight, you should watch it again.
  18. There have been many Shakespeare film adaptations, some good, many mediocre, even more not worth watching.
  19. There have been many adaptations of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2—these include My Private Idaho, by Gus Van Sant (recommended), as well as scenes from Javier Marias (recommended).
  20. Javier Marias is as obsessed with Falstaff as any of us.
  21. Correction: Than most of us.
  22. The great moment to be understood and analyzed is the coronation of Henry V (formerly Hal) at the end of Henry IV Part 2. It is famously the rejection of Falstaff.
  23. In case you would like one, a quick summary: Hal is the son of the King of England, and spends his times in pubs and brothels with unsavory characters, petty thieves and womanizers, a rabble of men lead by one fat fat fat man named Falstaff.
  24. Falstaff is perhaps the greatest name for a comic character ever thought up.
  25. It was Oldcastle, based on a historical person, named Sir John Oldcastle—but Shakespeare had to change the name, and add a disclaimer in the form of an epilogue at the end of Henry IV Part 2 because Oldcastle had powerful heirs and descendants that threatened Shakespeare’s company and business.
  26. Just as well. Falstaff is pure Shakespeare. And Falstaff sounds better than Oldcastle.
  27. Don’t worry about The Merry Wives of Windsor, it’s a curiosity but it has nothing to do with the actual Falstaff. Some scholars believe in fact that Shakespeare wrote the play at the request of the Queen of England, who enjoyed Henry IV Parts 1 &  2 and wanted to see “Falstaff in Love.”
  28. Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 were in fact Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and demonstrated the maturity of his talents, both dramatical and poetical. They were performed often during his lifetime, and earned him great acclaim (in the middle 1590s).
  29. Why is Falstaff such a great character? Why is the play so entertaining to watch and read? Why is Chimes at Midnight such a great movie?
  30. I don’t know: you tell me. Read it. Watch it. Then you can be skeptical and argue.
  31. If you have any brains, or heart, or sensitivity to Language, or Cinema, you’ll probably agree.
  32. What I’m saying is not legendary or landmark.
  33. What I’m saying has been approved by Harold Bloom.
  34. How can I be wrong?
  35. Aside from many amazing moments in the two plays, and scenes in the Welles film, what it all comes down to finally is the coronation scene.
  36. In it, Hal—now Henry V—is King of England. Falstaff of course is hoping for recognition, a title, power, some money, but most importantly—he wants to be recognized by his friend, whom he calls sweet wag, his honey Lord, and other such names that are among the most earnest interjections spoken by a character in the play.
  37. The irony: the great conman, charlatan, huxster Falstaff is an earnest man. He loves Hal, though he also loves life, and money, and pleasure, and the easiness of self-interest, and the boast of self-privilege, and the fluid swelling at all times of his own voice in witty procession.
  38. The irony: Hal is a much more complicated character than we have yet considered.
  39. On the one hand: He is your typical adolescent badboy antihero; his father is King of England, he spends his time in bars and driving late at night, doing drugs and fooling around with women, and his grades can’t be too impressive.
  40. On the other hand: He is heroic and noble, and never unaware of the power he will yet assume. There are many cues throughout the Henry plays and the film that let us know—he is not mindlessly wandering in his devious peregrinations. He is biding his time. He is trying to avoid what he is also restless to assume: Power.
  41. It is the nature of power to be both indulgent and arbitrary, to be selfless and self-absorbed.
  42. It is the privilege of power to do what it wants, when it wants.
  43. When the time comes for battle, Hal fights and defeats Hotspur, surprising and honoring his father’s wishes.
  44. But Hal has two fathers—one of the political world, and the court, which is Bolingbroke, a usurper himself of the English throne, and another, Falstaff, the master of revellers in a court no less full of intrigue and ritual. That court is a boarding house, that intrigue is picking people’s pockets, the ritual is getting drunk and staying drunk.
  45. Welles’ genius is to distinguish between these social worlds and their pressures by the type of actors he casts in his great film.
  46. On the one hand, there is John Gielgud, arguably one of the greatest British actors and interpreters of Shakespeare ever.
  47. Gielgud, in the true English style, was known for his beautiful speaking of verse, a high stentorian, enunciated, articulated, masterfully subtle and with feeling and richness of tone.
  48. Alec Guiness likened his voice to a “silver trumpet muffled in silk.”
  49. Alec Guiness was right.
  50. I am stealing some of my information from Wikipedia.
  51. Wikipedia, much maligned, is as good a place as any to steal things from.
  52. Often.
  53. Okay, well sometimes.
  54. Nevermind all that.
  55. So Welles chose Gielgud for the part of Hal’s father, Henry IV. It gives an air of authority and royalty and regalty to that role, and the persons of the court.
  56. Welles chose himself in the part of Falstaff, an American vaudvillean actor, who began in shows and plays, did Shakespeare in Harlem, did Radio Operas and Sagas, and contributed more to American cinema than anyone except Charlie Chaplin.
  57. The tension in high and low, between kings and hustlers, is showed in the contrasting styles of acting.
  58. It is not a matter of better or worse.
  59. It may be a deliberate matter of superbly refined and superbly vulgar showmanship.
  60. It is also a matter of America and England.
  61. Theater is an English thing, really.
  62. Film is an American thing, really.
  63. We produce actors who are celebrities, matinee idols.
  64. The Brits produce actors who are thesbians, masters of the stage.
  65. Both are necessary.
  66. Both in the same production are rare.
  67. Chimes at Midnight has both.
  68. Hal speaks like an American, acts like an American.
  69. When he becomes Henry IV, he pronounces and declaims like an English actor.
  70. It’s a marvelous change and directorial decision.
  71. Now to that Rejection.
  72. What’s it all about?
  73. Well the King of England can’t really spent his time rioting in a tavern.
  74. And Falstaff, smacking of the people but really just oafishly and splendidly himself, comes from that world and represents that world.
  75. Part of the play is a symbolic allegory about power and politics—are politicians may start like us, but they are not allowed to continue like us, because we want kings and presidents and leaders to be like gods.
  76. Gods are supposed to be inhuman and all-powerful.
  77. That is, power is inhuman.
  78. The more you have, the less like a person you become.
  79. Rhetorically, Shakespeare had his own stylization for these differences: he may not have had film vs. theater, American vs. British, but he certainly had a better tool.
  80. That is, language.
  81. In the Falstaff scenes, you hear a lot of prose.
  82. Amazing prose.
  83. In the courtroom scenes, you hear a lot of blank verse.
  84. Immaculate, gorgeous blank verse.
  85. For Falstaff scenes: Think Joyce. But better than Joyce.
  86. For Henry IV scenes: Think Marlowe. But better than Marlowe.
  87. Hal operates in both worlds for a time.
  88. For a time, Hal is Falstaff’s father. Hal, which is almost like Fal(staff).
  89. Then he becomes Henry V. Which is very like Henry IV.
  90. The friendship between Hal and Falstaff depicting in Chimes at Midnight, is romantic, but not in any sexual sense. Rather, it’s the essence of all friendship and comedy—two personalities that require each other to function. Falstaff performs, Hal commentates. Falstaff sins, Hal chastizes. Falstaff jests and boasts, Hal satirizes and mocks. They are seen drinking and walking, running and laughing, acting and plotting. They relate and complete one another, comically.
  91. This is what life promises.
  92. But power promises an elevation at the expense of all that. Especially, most sadly, friendship. Friendship is equivalent, and power is shared, mutual, reciprocated, given and taken. Royalty is absolute, and singular. Whenever there is one, there is violence.
  93. Or as Shakespeare says in Henry IV Act 3, Scene 1: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
  94. Shakespeare was obsessed with the nature of selfhood—was it public, or private? How did the nature of performing effect everything we do, with others, and how we see ourselves? Shakespeare’s greatest consciousnesses tend to be actors in their own plays, able to shape their destinies, create or resolve dramatic climax, see into the motives of others as well as self-consciously write their own lines. Hegel said something smarter and more eloquent, which captures this, about them being free-masons of their own selves. Something like that. Hal is such a character. He keeps talking about his true self, his old self, his new self. Who is he? He wears a crown, he dresses in a robe, he carries a scepter, and his part has changed. His verse alters. His tone is solemn. He does not want to joke. He does not want to riot and have sport. He rebukes Falstaff. He rebukes anyone who was as he was once. He becomes what he hated and loathed, and the lesson can’t simply be he’s a horrible friend. Is this just a case of absolute power corrupts absolutely? What is the corruption? Falstaff is a braggart, a cheat, a thief, a drunkard, and insolvent.
  95. In all of our lives, we’ve had these moments. People we’ve known have attained things, and gone places, received honors, and been privileged. And always, no matter what, like Falstaff (except without his crimes, without his generosity, without his genius, his mirth, his irreverence), we EXPECT to share in that, to be entitled, to remain equals. It is not just a matter of greed and ambition. It is a matter of love.
  96. Friendship is based in a love of two people for two people. Love is always between two people.
  97. Power, political and earthly power, is the reality of an individual representing everyone.
  98. But who cares?
  99. Haven’t you ever been expecting, on bended knee, a friend, a lover, someone, anyone, to acknowledge you? To honor their love? To privilege that bond? Shakespeare may have set out to write a political drama, a history play, appropriate to courts and battles, fighting and chanting speeches, which he does astonishingly so in Henry V, but in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, he writes something greater. Plays about history are plays about fate. Henry IV and Chimes at Midnight is about personalities—and the personality that is about foremost is Falstaff: the width of what it is to be human. Most of the play deviates from that law of genre, and takes to somewhere much more entertaining—two people who exist to know each other, share their mind, and enjoy nothing more than each other’s company. But the play has to end; Henry IV’s son has to become Henry V. And personalities like Falstaff’s (there are no others!) are too large a scope, too wide a berth. Fate and power and politics and monologues are vertical; personalities and dialogues and horizontal. Shakespeare may have been honoring a convention, finally, and rushing to a close, hastily, but he also left an audience (and a Queen) who loved this English buffoon aware of a sober truth. Our friendships like our love are commodities, accessories, ways in which we waste our mental and physical time. To those who are called to “serve,” to lead, there is no leisure to live life. (Ironically, Shakespeare had to please the Crown to promise to bring Falstaff back, the very Crown he depicted by dismissing that great man.) Henry V promises to give Falstaff advancement (a promotion of power). A few lines later Shakespeare puns on this word, as Falstaff is speaking of the advancement he owes Master Shallow. Earlier in the play, Falstaff jests: “Banish Falstaff and banish all the world!” But who would ever want to banish the world?
  100. But Shakespeare and Welles show us that for the chance of control we do.


Concerning all the recent discussions about memory, recitation, etc, I thought I would try it in my own way. I should disclose that I never recite my own poems from memory at readings. I think it is corny, weird, it makes me uncomfortable, and frankly, to spend that much time memorizing your own work is kind of sick.


I want to rebel against my own ideas.


I tried to write a poem entirely in my head and memorize it. I would never write it down. All editing would take place in my head. Line for line. The entire building and reconstruction could only exist abstractly. No writing as an aid. I would memorize the final poem. I would recite the poem and that is how it could live.


This is how it went: First I had a few lines, but I could only get at it by starting from the beginning over again each time. I imagined the line breaks and pauses to help remember it. I decided maybe I would to add three lines a day. I would imagine the form entirely in my mind. Maybe 12-16 lines total. A good length lyrical poem. It would be difficult.


I felt I was cheating. Picturing a form, with lines, line breaks, and any visual form seemed to me a kind of writing. Since I wasn’t marking anything down, why should there be “lines?” It’s just words in my head. There was also no need for form. When you recite a poem that you’ve seen on the page, imagining the stanzas certainly helps, but for this particular project (and yes it was becoming a project and yes I hate projects!) I felt that if I pictured lines, or stanzas, then that would essentially be the same as writing it on paper, because those forms are meant to see written and seen as a way of organizing thoughts on a page. To be true to the imaginative strength of the mind, it would just have to be a string, the rhythm of which would intuitively generate itself as I repeatedly said the poem allowed or thought it.


To order these words, these thoughts, I began imagining the actually words. Not just the sound. I saw the words in sequence. But to fix the words in an order seemed to me to always constitute a kind of writing. I felt I was cheating. It was also the kind of writing I could not get space from. It would be impossible to reflect upon the poem if I constantly had to carry it around. It would never sit and get cold. I could never see how shitty parts of it were and try and mend it. I got upset. It was becoming a drag on all accounts.


I decided that the only way this poem would be good, and interesting, and truly exist on the level, was if I created it anew from nothing every time I recited it. I would have to make up a new poem everytime. That would keep it from becoming this totally limiting enterprise. Because to go from memory is so safe…the only danger is forgetting, and thats more of a social anxiety than actually having anything to do with whats at stake in the greater art of it. Because to memorize my own thoughts, as megalomaniacal and funny an idea as it was, was really just writing another poem, and it wouldn’t be good. I am very happy to have moved on from this ludicrous idea.

So there’s always this double duty, neither to make the best the enemy of the good, nor to make the good the enemy of the best. Scylla and Charybdis. The reason I admire Johnson and Eliot and Empson so much – the thing that holds them together – is that they all think that doing the right thing is steering between two equally dangerous opposite bad things.

Do you remember that Eliot was billed as giving a talk on ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ and he’d realized that they’d simply misunderstood. That is, when he was asked what he was going to talk about, he’d said that these things were always a matter of Scylla and Charybdis and so forth, and this became the title of the talk so that we got a talk on this subject because they’d slightly misunderstood what he was saying. But it’s true to him.

And Samuel Johnson is profound on this. He asked why are we more lenient towards foolhardiness than towards cowardice. If you think of them as being equidistant from the right thing, two opposing faults. Why are we more lenient to the one? And the answer is because it is self-correcting. If you’re foolhardy, you bruise your shins. You find out, you learn from it. If you’re spendthrift, you learn as the miser never does. The spendthrift runs out of money, the miser never runs out of anxiety about money. Equidistant from the true course but one may prove preferable.

We need people to remind us that the good is the enemy of the best and we need people to remind us that the best is the enemy of the good. We need to protect ourselves from the dangers from both flanks.

—Christopher Ricks, interview from The Literateur Magazine

Something in a title suggests everything you could possibly want to say about a certain topic. As in the example of T.S. Eliot’s lecture entitled “Scylla and Charybdis,” mentioned by Ricks above. The title “The Problem of Style” suggested to me everything I wanted to blog about today concerning the evolution of a poet’s style, something I’ve been thinking about while reading through Robert Hass and Henri Cole to prepare book reviews about their new selected works.

Critics and academics—much maligned creatures to whom we should at least be grateful for having something to endlessly argue about—tend to regard style as a fixed thing, an external lacquer or recipe that poets consciously choose, modify, and have to then be evaluated for a/ which style they picked, b/ how well they handled it, and c/ at what expense Style X precluded Y or Z. Two conversations from memory substantiate the attitude I’m talking about, both by formidable minds. Archie Burnett teaching his class at Boston University was talking about John Milton and upon fielding some questions about the make-up of what we identify and label as “The Miltonic Style,” he went on to say “Ah, well, with a great poet like Milton he could have written in whatever style he wanted.” And recently, breaking bread with Daniel Mendelsohn, we entered into a large, hearty and even heated debate on whether or not a writer “sets out to know what he wants to write,”—his point being that whereas an amateur writer may just be throwing darts in the dark, merely provoking “questions,” suggesting possibilities he doesn’t have a finished thought about, the serious and accomplished writer knows exactly what he’s setting out to do, then tackles it with dispatch. I disagree with both of these statements—the first wholeheartedly, the second because of a zillion counter-examples. Milton, supreme artist that he was, wasn’t immobile or unaware of what he was up to, but to think he could have avoided the baroque line, his heightened Latinate phraseology, the robustly complicated syntax, is fanciful. For all his craft and intelligence and arch learnedness, Milton’s rhythmic DNA was predetermined (in a way). People, like poems, are after all a mixture of the given and the made. The made is not what I aim to dispute; but the given needs to be redefined, a little bit.

Style is foremost a tension of contradictions between a writer’s impulses and perception, not an absence of them. In a classical style, a writer’s personality is totally disguised behind the established proportions and prevailing measures of a tradition, or The Tradition, whatever that once meant. In the romantic style, a writer’s style emerges as an indulgence of their impulses and mannerisms that they recognized in past authors and themselves, developing towards “originality.” But originality as we know is at the root of idiocy, of speaking or sounding like someone outside the acquainted norms of the city—the polis. And this is what Samuel Johnson was getitng at when he said in response to a young poet’s manuscript: It is both good and original; the parts that are good are not original, the parts that are original are not good. Johnson, the epitome of the Augustan, classical mindset, looked on idiosyncrasy as a disease, one that had to be tolerated in the presence of a great writer like Swift, great that is for his other qualities, but extirpated in an overrated poet like Thomas Gray, whose diction was remote and eccentric. (I for one love Swift and Gray.)

And yet as Richard Howard has brilliantly written in his essay on Emily Dickinson, it is precisely a writer’s peversities that can make him so good, not in lieu of them, but directly because they were listened to, indulged, cultivated. He argues, shrewdly, that Dickinson’s dashes, capitalizations, peculiar rhythms, coy slant-rhymes are her genius as a poet, not provincial blemises that happen to sit on a great linguistic talent. The opposite point of view can be heard in Eliot’s essay on Blake, where the attitude is: Yes, this man was a great poet, but alas also a home-spun weirdo, who had these troublesome peculiarities that prevented him from being as important as good ol’ Dante. Harold Bloom, dissenting from Eliot (shocker!) has fired back, emphasizing in ‘The Western Canon’ (perhaps tipping the see-saw too much in the opposite direction) that Dante’s centrality to Western literature relies on his extraordinary brazenness, as when he ciphons Beatrice into eternal salvation history (an argument that is found also in Emerson).

But I am digressing between the Classical and Romantic trap, when what I want to talk about is what is akin to both of these modes, intrinsic to writing any poem, regardless of what the tradition it plugs into is.

When we think of style as a pathology—we do artists an injustice, to their deliberation and foresight, as well as to the range of a poet proven over time. Stevens writes in his characterstic mode for his entire life, but between ‘Harmonium’ and ‘The Rock’ the conscious artisan in Stevens decided to become more pared down, less jumpy in his adjective use, and honors the strain throughout his life to speak in the simple sentence.

When we think of style as a choice—we are forgetting that sensibilities are vast and complex and have so many unconscious ingredients, dispositions and biases at work, it’s impossible to say simply why W.C.W. favors the short, clipped line, and Frost keeps to iambic pentameter. One man’s nerves cannot stand noise, another bathes in distortion and static.

One of the problems of style then is when a writer acknowledges a past tendency as a mechanism no longer adequate, or pleasing, or just. True, for the precocious or immensely talented, perhaps this gap is indiscernable, or much shorter—as in a Merrill, who began writing as refined and polished as his very last works. Another exception is the occasional, and rare, writer who assimilates so easily other people’s styles, he can seemingly switch between them—but then isn’t that method their style? Joyce, Eliot, Ashbery: they don’t so much have different styles as styles with immense difference built into them. In Joyce, you see these as discrete effects as you follow his career towards a sea of chaos—but the Joycean tone, flippant, somewhat verbose?, and resigned, that’s there throughout. Eliot willfully goes against his inner discord, his turmoil and polyphony of voices that he discovered in ‘The Waste Land,’ then labors towards a ‘style’ in the ‘Four Quartets’ that is seamlessly regulated, and unified. Ashbery took the opposite route, and after he mastered in his third and fourth books the possibility for disjunctiveness in vocabulary, narrative and form—he has kept going, on and on and on, to this day.

It appears to me that everything that I am saying is grossly redundant, and obvious. So that’s a good place to stop.

The problem of style exists, larger than the unconscious and conscious distinctions I’ve circled around. One way of seeing poems must be not as answers to questions, solutions for the puzzle, or resolutions to the problem—but as a way to discover what the questions are, what puzzles need working out, what problems each writer has in store. If we’re lucky enough, though the problems, like our pathologies, never go away—we do get to master them, instead of them mastering us. That is, one hopes.