Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson discuss Czeslaw Milosz’s poems “On Prayer” and “And Yet the Books.”
Poetry and Poetics
I’ve never seen Evan Hansen wear a cowboy hat, but his pensive look in this picture displays the same concern he shows in his poetry for people and the tremendous, unspeakable burdens they carry on a daily basis. While the characters in these poems at times find solace, it is by no means permanent, and Hansen makes us wonder if a lifetime of momentary relief might be the best we can hope for. With that in mind, here’s to the upcoming long weekend providing us all with a little more time to relax our way into the summer.
Evan Hansen, Part 1
Evan Hansen, Part 2
A dead CEO admonishes me to do
what I love, which he can’t see me
doing. I need only a clean place to lie
around, to see a few decent things.
You’re lucky if you have half
of that, but which half. Also look
up to see everything has gone
a shade of purple which should
only last a few minutes but goes
on for an hour because of the clouds.
And why is that, an equinox
or its afterbirth staining everything
some of the other words there are
for purple. Go find them for me
and keep maybe one for yourself,
give them to me and invent more
and I will acquire them, hand over
the ones you were making and I will
tell the world I invented them. They are
mine (Lilac™, Violet™) and I will kill
you to impress upon you that I can.
Mark Bibbins teaches at The New School and Columbia. His books are The Dance of No Hard Feelings (Copper Canyon, 2009) and the Lambda Award-winning Sky Lounge. He is poetry editor of The Awl.
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:
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.
The way I see it, history as a subject reads best when it is both documented and re-imagined (In Cold Blood, Ragtime, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men come immediately to mind); when a literary revelation emerges as a result of source material from the scene and from the bigger world get all mixed up. Artistic freedom applied to the narrative of seeing the world gives historical events a kind of literary sense beyond the mere recording of something that happened in time.
By nature, history is haphazard and at its core, personal. And I can’t think of any American poet who knows that fact as deeply and successfully as C.D. Wright who has, in a number of books, combined poetry with other kinds of writing to make a history about prisoners in Louisiana (One Big Self: An Investigation a collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster), or America’s relationship with itself and the rest of the world (Rising, Falling, Hovering) or, in her most recent book, One With Others, her own, even more familiar smalltown Arkansas and the civil rights movement in the late sixties.
_____It smells like home. She said, dying. And I, What’s that you smell, V. And V, dying: The faint cut of walnuts in the grass. My husband’s work shirt on the railing. The pulled-barbecued evening. The turned dirt. Even in this pitch I can see the vapor-lit pole, the crape myrtle not in shadow…
So begins this brilliant book of poems, prose, oral history, collection of historical records and eyewitness accounts about a group of blacks living in rural Arkansas and their ‘walk against fear’ in 1969 (most strongly felt as a response to King’s assassination the year before). This account of second class citizenship (culminating at one point in a round up of the town’s black students into an emptied public swimming pool) is told from different points of view – most luminously revealed in the life of a woman known as “V” (Wright’s mentor and guide):
_____They drove her out of the town. They drove her out of the state. Until they burned up her car, she drove herself. Burned her car right next to the police station. She had just begun to drive, I mean she had just learned to drive and she had many miles to go. Then, whoa, Gentle Reader, no more car. The white man burned that MF to the struts.
While this is a book about memory (and how it mixes with politics to form a kind of seam against oppression) it is also a reminder of how the story of civil rights continually evolves with differing sets of explosive situations to set the next call to action in motion:
To act, just to act. That was the glorious thing.
Walking we are just walking
Dead doe on the median
Whoever rides into the scene changes it
Pass a hickory dying on the inside
A black car that has not moved for years
Forever forward/backwards never
One With Others with it’s look back at the history of a march is also interlaced with looks into the future. V, for instance, ends up in Hell’s Kitchen, New York – the place one senses, that names a location as much as a state of mind:
_____IN HELL’S KITCHEN: Her apartment is smaller by half than the shotgun shacks that used to stubble the fields outside of Big Tree. Stained from decades of nonstop smoking. The world according to V was full of smoke and void of mirrors.
_____She was not an eccentric. She was an original. She was congenitally incapable of conforming. She was resolutely resistant.
_____Her low-hanging fears no match for her contumacy
_____Grappling books in the mud leaf out in the mind
What gives this book it’s great heart and beauty is how it follows not only the force and fragmentary transcription of history and civil rights on a local level, but that it follows thinking itself: a fixation on a memory, the confusion over time of who is who and the indelible way activism and art documents a time. (Aside from the march and outcries, there is also a continuing devotion to literature, painting and music).
This feeling of the mind working in time is also drawn literally, typographically, with continuous placements of wide white spaces between lines and paragraphs and list items. By the end, the book takes on the form of a list undulating into a paragraph followed by lines breaking away: the way, as if the past is a dream, we make ourselves remember it and piece it together:
_____Not the sound but the shape of the sound
_____Not the clouds rucked up over the clothesline
_____The copperhead in the coleus
_____Not the air hung with malathion
_____Not the boomerang of bad feelings
_____Not the stacks of poetry, long-playing albums, the visions of Goya and friends
_____Not to be resuscitated
_____and absolutely no priests, up on her elbows, the priests confound you and then they confound you again. They only come clear when you’re on you deathbed. We must speak by the card of equivocation will undo us.
_____Look in to the dark heart and you will see what the dark eats other than your heart.
One With Others is a masterpiece.
At a recent Poet’s House reading, Demosthenes Agrafiotis had some harsh things to say about haiku written in English. They fail not only because English can’t possibly pack as much information into a syllable as Japanese does, but the form itself is tied to a cultural imperative, a way of thought that one learns for so long that to even ponder how it works unravels the meaning.
That said, Brian Kalkbrenner’s Foul Feelings is the closest thing in English, spiritually, to haiku that I can possibly think of. Sure, the poems are pithy and zazen, which is an easy link to the Japanese form. But these often tiny poems are ponderously gargantuan. Brian is a modern western ronin, wandering the new nature of urban living (as urbanized development has taken the majority of the Earth’s surface, it might as well be the modern rendering of nature) and living the poet’s path, sharpening his pen and honing his skills.
Such a road is not easily traveled, and to compound his difficulties, Brian has chosen to commit poetry seppuku by self-publishing Foul Feelings. How is self-publishing like slicing open one’s belly in disgrace? Samurai committed ritual sacrifice for many reasons large and small, but I believe that Brian has chosen to publish this book himself and therefore alienate the work from a large segment of the larger (read: academic) poetry world because that world has gone from focusing on art to focusing on the numbers, specifically the number of dollars given as prizes, scholarships, fellowships, etc.
You might as well save your Stegner application fee and invest in some Mega-Millions tickets because you have about the same chances of winning either. And even if you do make it, what guarantee is there that you will be a better writer, let alone a “successful” one? Brian bypasses the lottery of modern poetic politics, instead choosing to release these poems of their own volition. One would realistically consider this a grave mistake, given the stigma against self-publishing, if not for two things: the poems are sharp enough to parse atoms, and no journal would ever accept them. Brian had no choice but to climb the mountain and meditate on his craft.
It’s hard to talk about these lines without giving anything away, though there isn’t really much to give away. They are mostly small, ranging from seven words to paragraph-length prose poems. Not all of them are philosophical but neither are they simple narratives. They’re surreal in the way that you are given two things that don’t exactly connect logically but don’t exactly disconnect either; they are reflections from a broken mirror. Any meaning pulled from the lines are refracted through the reader.
Not that Brian is only writing about the big pictures here. In fact, that’s what makes these poems so haiku-like in the first place: modern life is explicated through the small moments, images, and thoughts of everyday life and everyday language. That same daily word choice, the common words we all utilize hourly, transformed like sand into glass by Brian’s capable hands. That’s the strength behind Foul Feelings and poetry at large, the way it can take something we thought we new and twist it into new meaning. Any publisher would be honored to have Brian in their ranks, but perhaps it would be best for us if he continued to walk the way of the warrior-poet.
M.A. Vizsolyi’s first book of poetry, The Lamp with Wings: Love Sonnets won The National Poetry Series, selected by Ilya Kaminsky, and is forthcoming in the fall 2011. He teaches ice hockey and ice skating lessons in Central Park, and lives in New York City with his wife, the poet, Margarita Delcheva.
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.
Before I left for India, my doctor tried to talk me into a a $1500 rabies vaccine by convincing me that packs of stray dogs would be pouncing on my every step and probably even attack me in my sleep. He practically insisted I buy a Hazmat suit to ward off mosquitoes. My mother, on the other hand, just said, “Gosh honey, that’s far.” My friend, who had actually visited India, warned me to watch out for motorbike guys who would feel me up on the street.
We all have our ways of dealing with the unknown, I guess. Apparently cartographers used to write “Here be dragons” on sections of uncharted territory, especially oceans, where they drew pictures of giant sea serpents. One ancient Roman map cautioned travelers about the presence of dog-headed beings. Another 15th-century map warns of men with horns.
I know my mom, doctor, and friend were all looking out for me—and they were right about some of that shit—but the real warning I wish I’d gotten is this: Don’t take any of the warnings too seriously. Sure, India’s far away, the number of stray dogs is vaguely alarming, and guys on motorbikes will (and have already) tried to cop a feel. Everyone knows that snakes are dangerous—but the real danger of constantly watching the ground for cobras is that you miss out on the beauty of the landscape around you.
Luckily, the Indian friends I’ve met here quickly relieved me of all my Western paranoia, largely by mocking me and all the protective gear I brought along. Wear bug spray, they said, but only at dawn and dusk. Check your bed for scorpions, but don’t stress about it. Accept that your feet will be dirty a lot of the time.
These exchanges were my first brush with what I’ve come to appreciate as one of the loveliest things about India: flow. The sense of going with things rather than against them, of finding their underlying movement and joining it rather than frantically trying to control every detail. People don’t really stand in line at shops here, they just sort of eventually maneuver their way past other people to the front. Traffic (magically?) works this way too—no one stays in a lane, cars just twist and turn and honk until the other people/cars/cows/dogs get out of the way. True, this strategy requires a lot of looking out for yourself, but it’s effective. As Westerners all we see is horrible chaos and inefficiency, but somehow, India—an ancient nation with an extremely diverse population of over a billion—works.
The other day my Danish friend Louise and I went to Bangalore to do some exploring. We could have taken a cab back to the village, but decided to try the bus, which was much cheaper and took about the same amount of time. Naturally, we were totally unprepared for the chaos—“the bus station” was a slew of 50 or so buses in no discernible line or arrangement that all left at the same time. The “system” is that passengers wade through the sea of vehicles, hope they find the one with the right number on it, and get on before it leaves (or, jump on as it drives away). After asking about 15 drivers where our bus was and getting about 15 noncommittal Indian head nods, we eventually packed ourselves in the right sardine tin.
Even riding on the bus, a relatively passive activity, is an exercise in flow and communal effort. People cram in until no one can move, and if you’re lucky enough to have a seat, you will bear the (literal) burden of whatever the people standing up don’t have room to carry. For about an hour of the ride I held some random lady’s laptop, while the old woman next to me held a baby—the baby of a total stranger. The tacit understanding seems to be hey, we’re all in this madness together, so let’s at least help each other out.
This afternoon my friend Mireille (who’s French, and a longtime expatriate) was describing her early experiences in India to me—how hard it was at first to feel clueless about all the cultural cues, especially with regard to relationships. “It would take a year of friendship with someone in France to have the kind of conversation you have with someone you just met in India—someone you will never see again,” she said. “It’s much more acknowledging of real life. We don’t know what will happen with our relationships, with our lives. So people just live now.” And when you do have that intense conversation with someone you just met, you don’t need to thank them for the fulfillment or follow up, for changing your day—it’s just “see you, have a nice life.” People move in and out of your life organically, and sometimes quickly.
As confusing and frustrating as I find it at times, I can already feel this sense of flow moving out of the “Observations About Exotic Other” file in my brain and beginning to permeate my consciousness. When a poem I’m writing isn’t working, my typical impulse is to keep trying to force it into existence until I hate writing and hate my life and why are we even here on this planet and OMG 404 SYSTEM ERROR. Lately, though, I’ve found myself just… letting it go. Moving on to something else, maybe having a coffee or a chat, and coming back to it later to see if it’s open for business. “Sitting down to work” has become “relaxing into thought.” Several poem-series I’d started/abandoned before I left have been getting more attention now that I can pull back and give them the slow, intuitive love they deserve. I also find myself more willing to let go of those poem-parts that got things started but now don’t fit anymore—you know, the ones you want to hang on to because hey, you owe them for bringing you a poem.
When I got here I asked about the Indian head nod (How do I do it? What does it mean?) and was told by both locals and foreigners it would only happen naturally, that it couldn’t be forced. Much to my surprise, the other day I did it to a waiter without even noticing. I don’t know that I could explain exactly what I meant—yes, no, maybe, sort of, I don’t know, or a multitude of other things—but he knew what I meant.
One of the most curious aspects about poetry is that the element of “truth” presented in any given poem is never stable. With this in mind, the truth that the reader must accept at face value is constructed by the poet out of his or her organic impulses, and must be credible simply because the poet pronounces that it is. A question with which I have been wrestling for years is the idea that the poet and the “speaker” are possessed by two distinct and disconnected identities. What I find fascinating is that I can read a poem about death, sadness, and strife, and in some cases, the suffering of the speaker, and then meet and converse with the poet who always seems to be a contented and well-adjusted individual. This might evince the possibility that the speaker is not always espoused to the poet, but is rather something of the poet’s alternative identity.
In certain instances, this is not the case. The idea that the speaker is the poet condemns the poet to a great deal of inner turmoil. The content of some poems would suggest then that poet as speaker is ailed with madness. So why, when I go to poetry events do the poets all seem like regular people? Why aren’t they screaming in the streets about their hallucinations?
As poets, I think we all must surrender to hallucinations. There are those who will attest that every poet must be possessed by a bit of madness. When I feel too “sane” I find it difficult to produce a good poem. But if all poets harness that little bit madness when they write, then what they write must be fully believed as true. The irony in this is that we don’t know exactly whether the poem then becomes a “lie,” later on when we go to the grocery store and happily shop for hamburger meat without breaking into sobs for the plight of the cows. We just go through the check-out line with our meat, exchange pleasantries with the cashier, go home and cook dinner. It seems almost dangerous to retain a bit of that madness when interacting with the percentage of unpoetic minds.
I once read a poem in which the speaker claims that he spent three days in a closet and then solved most of the world’s problems. So I imagined that this was actually true of the poet. I wonder if this was true, and if after he emerged from his sabbatical in the closet, he drove his kids to school, cleaned the house, and paid his taxes. So is it perilous for the poet to become the speaker? I don’t know. If a poet writes about standing on a cliff and contemplating whether or not to jump, do we check the poet into the psychiatric unit? Or do we send an imaginary speaker to the psychiatric unit?
If the poet puts on a mask in order to inhabit the madness and grandiosity of the speaker, then what is it in us that can allow us to go out, eat our dinner politely, and carry on a conversation about recipes and yoga? Where does the poet go when she writes about being somebody’s shadow and love letters up in flame? How does she then give a reading in a bookstore where they are serving punch and cookies and not be denounced for her schizo-affective depression? How does she then shake hands and sign books and smile? Does she go home and tear off all the wallpaper in a fit of despair and then swallow two bottles of aspirin with a bottle of vodka? Or does she just write about doing this?
Because honestly, most would say that a poem about tearing off all the wallpaper and swallowing two bottles of aspirin with a bottle of vodka is much more interesting than just saying “I forgot to brush my teeth last night.” So must the speaker live through the poet?
I don’t know. But we can make our dental neglect interesting, without endangering our own lives. If the speaker takes over, then what the speaker claims is true is true, and as readers, we must accept this truth. Someone once told me that all poets are liars. If this is the case, then what are they lying about? Does the poet lie through the speaker or does the poet lie about her sanity while buying hamburger meat? Obviously, the former is more compelling.
I have arrived at the conclusion that poets, then, must have a handle on their madness in order to work with publishers. Publishers don’t care about your mental instabilities. They don’t care if you woke up and had a nervous breakdown because you forgot to brush your teeth last night. They care about metaphor, allusion, command of language. They care about what readers would appreciate as quality poetry. So must we assume this madness in order to write and then tell the psychiatrist that everything is going along swimmingly? Must we write about spending three days solving the problems of world in a closet, or must we really do so? How far must we go to procure truth?
This is what I mean when I say that the truth is constructed, and through that, an identity from which we may be disconnected. We must carry our speakers around like children and care for them. If our speakers die, or say that they died in the poem, then the poet must go on living, liberated from strife. She must buy hamburger meat. She must brush her teeth. She must tear off all the wallpaper, in her mind. And she must always emerge from the madness of the poem into a sense of normalcy, whatever that normalcy is, if normal at all.
Today we’re reposting the 3rd episode of Scattered Rhymes: an interview with Josh Bell.
In the introduction to Unusual Woods (BlazeVOX 2010) you refer to your poems as “ghost sonnets.” Why “ghost sonnets?” And what prompted you to (a) select a definitive form, the sonnet, in which to write the poems and (b) to shave a line off the form?
I call them “ghost sonnets” because they’re missing the 14th line of a proper sonnet. That is, it’s getting later than it’s ever been and the sonnet is nearly over: do you know where your closure is? Writing poetry for me is a memento mori – the Latin for “remember that you must die” – as well as memento vivere – the Latin for “remember that you must live.” Living and dying in our lapsarian condition, we cannot close read our way out of our crisis of form. With regard to our lapsarian condition and the prospect of doing contemporary close reading, we need to ask: fallen from what and closer to what? We cannot, yet again, invent a mythical authority figure and then pretend we did not fashion that figure in our own likeness (like the New Critics, the New Formalists, or the New Sincerity movement in American poetry did). Certainly, I am not suggesting that we need more cynical irony. I think we need more sincere skepticism.
Once the center no longer holds, all readings become contests of meaning. Authority, intentionality, heroism, freedom, nation, progress and the rest of the Grand Narratives become suspect and, at best, conditional once we see the horrors the documents of the past have cataloged under the flags of these abstractions. All Grand Narratives are eschatological.
Heroically or mock-heroically, the un-whole sonnets in Unusual Woods try to face the ghosts of such radical doubts. To echo Leonard Cohen, the missing line in these ghost sonnets is the crack where the suspicious and conditioned light comes in. An innovative poetry, as Walt Whitman suggested, needs an innovative readership. These poems will possess the reader who finds a way to stand witness to their demands. The word is mightier than.
Why are British lords always hearing chains in the cellar? O, that’s right, the sun never sets on the British Empire. As the ubiquitous chain-rattling ghost haunts Victorian literature, so too form haunts content in contemporary American poetry. Form dreams of containing the message, the saying, or the idiomatic haggling over the transaction of meaning. Form dreams of mattering as a kind of play between aesthetical and ethical imperatives. However, sometimes form has a nightmare called a didactic political poem. Berrr! The truth lies hyphenated somewhere between aesthetical form-ethical content. Have you ever been hyphenated? Most uncomfortable!
To put it as pompously as a I can: I intervened in the rich multicultural sonnet tradition by inventing the 13-line sonnet form because I needed a practical way to determine when a poem was done without relying on the Romantic standby of intuition or epiphany or other gestures of closure. The limited lines offered a grid that freed me to attend to other aspects of the poem construction process such as how sound relates to sense within an aleatory composition. Finding the 13-line grid was certainly an example of limitations proffering freedom.
Foregoing, then, all “mythical authority figures” in which to ground the operations of form, ought we to construct new forms and/or salvage forms from the vestiges of tradition? Or, are we for the foreseeable future trapped in “ghost” forms?
I’d like to pose it as a question: can we forego all “mythical authority figures” or not? Briefly, since this is obviously a huge topic, I would just like to add that I do believe poetry would become little more than unreadable formal exercises without a basis in faith or without a reaching out to name the essence of a person, place, or thing. Can we even imagine or can our language even connote without a metaphysical arc? Why does language fail to communicate without the metaphysical sponsorship of human agency?
As a reader of the old forms of the European avant-gardes and American modernisms, I’ve learned the importance of being weary of prognosticators. Growing up in Romania under the last communist dictatorship in Europe, I developed a strong distaste for utopian programs. Every 5 year plan is a sacrifice of someone’s present. Indeed, the word “we” might be the most vicious utopia of all. I think readers read in order to gain the ghostly traces of the past through the wickets of language and image. Without the practice of freedom, the new is mere fashion, right?
In your introductory essay, you say that “[a]s a critic, [you are] faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content.” In my review, I took “object with aesthetic form” to mean that the “objectivity” and structure of your poems lend them a universal quality, in spite of their specificity and dependence on “cultural biography.” Your statement also suggests that you want your poems to be approached as aesthetic objects. Is this right, and, if so, how ought we to understand the relationship of these two aspects–universal and aesthetic?
For whatever my current understanding of my own intention is worth to the reader encountering my poems, I do want my poems to be read as aesthetic and formally considered objects. At the same time, I also want my poems to be read as political provocations that ask the reader to reflect on her ethical position in the narrative we make of the past. Some of the most interesting language I know lives in the hyphens connecting, while also separating, words like poet-artist, aesthete-propagandist, Romanian-American. Between is the new both!
I think your question about the prospect of a universal beauty goes to the heart of one of the most challenging aspects of writing as an experimental poet in the twenty first century: how does one use language? Since language operates as a denotative instrument in the service of function as well as a connotative artifact in the plot of illusion, how one uses language is not a simple matter of practicing sincere criticism or of practicing coy pun-work. Language lives between function and figuration trying to break up the street fight while also egging on the street fight.
Regarding the possibility of objectivity, allow me to quote Heinz von Foerster: “Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.” My love of language (language is the medium of wisdom after all) is born of my interest in the simple but not the simplistic, the fundamental but not the fundamentalist, the elemental but not the elementary. I think an ethics exists when one acknowledges the other. Once the subject relates to the object, I think we can begin the process of defining what is good and what is bad for individuals and for society. The problem, of course, persists into everyday living: how do we go about the practice of acknowledging the other and how do we meet the task of defining our categories?
On the prospect of a universal beauty, I’d just like to offer a few questions. How can beauty (however innovative its form, however good its self-perceived intention, however tripartite its ideology) be universal across races, classes, genders, times, temperaments, languages, grammars, habits, religions, and so on? The universe itself is a huge and mainly dark room (or stanza, the Italian word for room). What does it mean to make an adjective of such a little-known and mainly empty and cold room? Maybe the universe is missing its 14th line. What would a Mayan make of Candide?
To answer your question, certainly there is no universal beauty if this requires that all readers across time and space must agree on what is beautiful. On the other hand, to ask your readers, whom I believe you assume to be culturally diverse, to approach your poems aesthetically, assumes that reading aesthetically is possible. Certainly responses of readers will vary widely based on a variety of factors, but one could argue that the differences are finite and provisional. In other words, to say beauty is always personal and relative is not to say it is totally subjective. Wouldn’t the Mayan be able (mostly) to understand Candide if she took a class from a Voltaire scholar who catered to international students?
Right, cultural relativism is at the heart of this important debate. Certainly, our multicultural differences are “finite and provisional” but whom should we ask to tell us where these differences end and on what they depend? If beauty is “always personal and relative,” how do we approach the prospect of coming to a universal consensus on the meaning of beauty? Catering is such an interesting word. It reminds me of the multicultural phrase “underserved community” which, for me anyway, brings up concerns of the master-slave relationship with respect to how capital nurtures and even propagates the classist ideal of necessary difference, the boom and bust cycle of universal beauty.
I think your essay successfully sets up the dichotomy of reading aesthetically versus politically–a dichotomy that your poems show to be false. But in your essay you argue that culture influences aesthetics. Undoubtedly, we also consult aesthetic objects when we establish or alter cultural traditions. Why, then, don’t we simply collapse these categories? If the dialectic between aesthetics and culture is extremely fluid, is it necessary to uphold a distinction? Shouldn’t we just concede that all artistic objects are sites for “contests of meaning” (to borrow your phrase from earlier)? To put it another way, is there anything about the aesthetic that is outside of or impervious to power struggle?
As I suggest above, the biographical circumstances of my childhood in Romania have left me suspicious of centralized government. Romania transitioned pretty swiftly from a socialist dream in 1965 to a despotic regime in 1972. Since I only caught the despotic end of utopia, I tend to see public plans of commitment such as the various 5 year plans in the former USSR, Romania, China, India and so on as instruments poised to organize the public around that famously shared, and even more famously necessary, delusion: hope. We need hope as long as we conceive of time as a linear procession of good and bad luck.
That said, according to my 5 year plan, the fluid dialectic between the aesthetical and the political does not end. The motion between making special (art) and making clear (propaganda) flows in time because the human experiment flows in time. Whether that motion moves in a straight line from left to right or in a circle depends on whether you prefer Pepsi or Coke. My point is that we cannot choose without ideology rearing up its pretty head. Ideology is in the details.
I’ll be better able to answer your question after the apocalypse has brought history to its end. Only after human strife and pleasure is over, on the floodlit stage of the afterlife, can we determine whether we should collapse the categories of aesthetics and politics. However, since this is turning out to be the warmest decade in history, the end of days may be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the global warming trend continues, the human rights and social justice issue of the twenty first century may be our final 5 year plan.
What were you thinking when you wrote “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh”? This poem stands out both in its line length and its (seemingly) overt autobiographical undertones. So I was struck by its uniqueness. On the other hand, I anticipate that method by which your “cultural biography” shaped this poem might be representative of a similar method in the other poems.
Like Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, Vasko Popa, Frank O’Hara, Kent Johnson, Patricia Smith, I certainly use the autobiographical register but I profess no one-to-one ratio between the speakers in my poems and my life experiences. “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh,” like most poems in Unusual Woods, (“My father did not invent fire” is a notable exception) have been pared down and built upon again and again. Whether expository or creative, writing is very much a process for me.
As a writer interested in the marginalia and redux of consciousness, I know I cannot know my own intentions. That said, some of the material in the “Back in Romania…” poem does borrow, stress, and tweak my own life experiences as a boy growing up in Romania. The formal rule of 13-line stanzas explains the longer line length: the story had to fit within the 13-line capsule.
Yes, you’re right! The process of tapping my cultural biography (or the unconscious authority of the force of memory) flows as a theme throughout these otherwise highly divergent morsel-sized poetic stanzas, rooms, universes. Where’s the fire? The urgency is in the old paradox: we die while we live. There’s the fire. Now run, sentence, run.
André Breton claimed surrealism puts life in the service of art. Surrealism asks artists and poets to make it realer than real, hyper real, or extra real. Such an understanding of the unconscious haunts these odd 13-line universes. These poems listen to how you read them; they listen with the cut and paste of idiom and image. It is the hurry up of scissors’ work. It is the hush and clang of bodiless souls associating with their kinfolk of understanding.
Or as Charles Simic puts it: “I’m a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs. Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves. Not many people seem to notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.”
Recently, there have been several articles on THEthe Poetry Blog on surrealism in poetry, and I am dissertating on this topic. Is it simply the cut-and-glue process that makes your poetry surreal, or are there other elements at work? Simic’s comment would suggest not process, but mimesis is the primary function.
Certainly, I seek to create uncanny effects with my poems: effects that both ring the doorbell of childhood but also ring the jilted note of the unfamiliar. I seek to create new and memorable effects of the new and memorable real. Like any writer, I do this partly through craft elements such as imagery, setting, character, and partly through my capability to live with not knowing. Mimesis is a process of mishearing in a productive way. Was it Tristan Tzara or Eminem who said “thought is made in the mouth”? Anyway, I like to listen with my imagination.
When writing and revising, do you strive for the surreal, or is it only an afterthought?
Surreal effects are the afterthoughts of language, more like it. Walter Benjamin has a theory that all words in all languages are onomatopoetic, readers only have to do the work of figuring out how sound relates (or used to relate) to signification in light of the value system of each language. To borrow the syntax of a bumper sticker: “chance operations happen.” The task, if you like, of poets and readers is to notice the odd rubbing going on between sound and sense. I like to watch words. Not many people notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.
The Surrealists often spoke of the marvelous (which might be considered a version of the sublime) as the end of their methods. Do you concur that something marvelous or sublime happens when certain conditions are met in the text? Does this relate in any way to how you understand the aesthetic aspect of your poetry?
Dada interests me more than Surrealism. However, within Surrealism, its anarchic tendencies seem more interesting to me than its fetishistic tendencies (which American marketing has employed with such gusto). For instance, Breton had another concept called “convulsive beauty” which transgresses the boundaries of formal logic as well as the canonical categories of Beauty. Convulsive beauty, by retooling the pathology of hysteria, queers aesthetic and political norms. Like Dada, hysteria (applied by the Surrealists not as a pathological diagnosis but as an instrument to destabilize categories) is that “which escapes definition.” With my creative work, I seek to make the possible more possible. This is the only kind of new I know.
Ode to the The
I liked that you were small and thick,
easy to recognize. I think
I thought you were married to and, who was often
somewhere in the sentence, holding things
together, while you would be standing, a tin
soldier, the rifle barrel of your h
sticking up over your shoulder. I felt a little
sorry for you, always announcing,
never the thing itself. When I looked
you up, they said your meaning is “controlled
by the notion ‘previously recognized,
noticed or encountered,’” and your Indo-European
base is *-to-, and *-ta-, each of them
the’d with its asterisk. O the,
I have never thanked you, guardian of the noun,
worker ant, moving things along as if
from underneath–river of the,
wheels of the. Thank you for always
being yourself, never adding
a letter to make a scary face
from within the phrase. All honor to thee,
enduring grammatical gristle, plain
flourish, stalwart bugler–the the of this song.
Sharon Olds is the author of many books including Satan Says, which received the San Francisco Poetry Center Award and The Dead and the Living which was both the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1983 and the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest collection is Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002. Professor Olds holds the Erich Maria Remarque Professorship at NYU.
I am excited about the prospect of teaching a course in which students will be given an opportunity to dismantle certain suppositions, while at the same time studying the mechanisms of dismantling which we call literary movements, and literary greatness. First, what is a gatekeeper? What gate does he keep? And what is the literary greatness he upholds? What verbal strategies and “values” are employed to maintain a standard or rebel against a standard? Is there any real difference between the strategies of obeying a structure or dismantling it? If there is no standard, and anything is great if you say it is, then why do certain works persist? Does this mean they are truly great, or that the argument for their greatness, the strategies and rigor of those arguments, or the simple fact that one feels compelled to continue the argument make them so? What are the advantages of upholding a tradition and the advantages of dismantling it, if any, beyond power? And, if power is the only constant of both those who would reform and those who resist being reformed, then is there any movement at all–or just new and seemingly competing terminologies for the same basic thing?
The more things same, the more they same the change.
Things change by staying the same.
Things stay the same by changing.
If change equals sameness and Sameness equals change, where in this process of the constancy of change, and the inconstancy of sameness do terminologies emphasize their rigorous nomenclatures of change or their equally rigorous nomenclatures of sameness? How does the atrophy of one lead to the hypertrophy of the other? What are the common mechanisms and verbal strategies of sameness and change in any verbal aesthetic? In what sense is the break down of any system A.) Breakthrough? B.) Proof that the system exists? C.) Prove that it never existed? D.) Proof that it may or may not exist and is to be considered only in so far as it exists as a series of assertions and all terminologies in the verbal construct gather around it to prove or disprove its “validity?”
What do we mean by cultural evolution? If we can come up with a definition for evolution, does the definition cease to be challenged effectively? And if it ceases to evolve, does it, itself, contradict cultural evolution? And if it contradicts cultural evolution, doesn’t that prove evolution by way of evolving beyond it? Can we ever escape the mechanisms and strategies by which we assert that we are beyond the mechanisms and strategies of assertion? Why do we put flesh on the mechanisms of the bones and organs. What is the value not only of methodology, but of hiding one’s methodologies behind a terministic screen? How do literary terms resemble the veil over the covenant. And when we hide anything by a vocabulary of jargon, exclusion, or discourse, do the gatekeepers mistake mastery of the jargon for the value? Do people ever really value truth, or do they value the power that comes from mastering certain mechanisms of truth? To that end:
“Every discourse, even a poetic or oracular sentence, carries with it a system of rules for producing analogous things and thus an outline of methodology.”
All selections from reality/life are distortions of reality/life. They imply a rhetoric (method) of inclusion and exclusion implicit in the choosing of one thing or way over another. Thus Kafka’s statement: “the minute you write she opened a window, you have already begun to lie.” What can we say about correctness then, the right or perfect way to do something save that it is obeys to the furthest rigor and skill the rhetoric of its own distortions, and, when it disobeys the rhetoric of those particular distortions, it does so with equal or greater rigor? Error exists not in whether something is true or false but in whether one has obeyed its rhetoric (methodology) or disobeyed without full rigor. There can be no errors in perception if all perception is misperception,only errors in methodology. If one attempt to obey and fails, this is sin/error, or incompetence. If one disobeys and succeeds with full rigor, this is a new system. If all this be so, then there is no difference between postmodernism’s obsessions with deconstruction (the process of instability) and the bureaucracy from which it came into being and in which it thrives. To quote Derrida again:
“It is the rigor and conviction of my views and methods that seem threatening– not what I say, but the rigor, conviction, and competence by which I say it.”
What is the outline of methodology in Ashery’s poems? (we will look at three of them). IN Larry Levis (again three poems). In Keats’ “Odes?” in Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of ORder at KEy West,” “Large Red Man Reading” and in Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s family and identity poems? How do these methodologies contradict or exclude the possibility of the other?
Besides this old adage, we will be considering the following:
To what extent is art for art’s sake, in its purest most absolute expression, merely a morality and didacticism made conspicuous by its absence? (We will compare the verbal strategy of Oscar Wilde’s essays on art for art’s sake, with some famous sermons and their verbal strategies)). How does an aesthete resemble a strict moralist? What are the verbal strategies of disdain an aesthete employs for the meaningful and the ontological, and how do they resemble the “outrage” of moralists? How does the “cool” and indifference, and practiced inconsequence of an aesthete betray the same underlying violence and zeal as the heat and fanaticism of a moralist? What are the particular strategies of violence in a system that must maintain it is above and beyond “for and against” and is for unending nuance?More importantly, how does an insistence upon ontology (meaning) falsify substance. How does an insistence on substance falsify meaning.
What are the advantages of “who cares” and “so what” in the history of power (the strategies of inviting and not inviting) and how do they figure in the development of post modernism? For this we will be looking at some of the journal entries of Andy Warhol, and some of the party scenes in Proust. We will examine the supposition: power is the right to be arbitrary and contemptuous of all subjects that do not reflect the right to be arbitrary. Power is the lawless generative force of laws, traditions, and beliefs to which it need not adhere. Power never participates in the consistency which it engenders, in that which upholds it. When power obeys its own laws and gatekeepers, it ceases to be power. If this is true, then there are three ways to dismantle a power structure:
1. To go against it (reformers, new movements,)
2. To obey it so perfectly, with such utter obedience that one becomes a “pure” servility. Hence: the gates and the gatekeepers supplant the very thing they were built for and protect. Substance confers substance upon essence and deconstructs it as an essence. The “power” disappears into that which obeys it. (Kafka)
3. To confuse the issues to the point where they shift.
Byron: Not Wordsworth, but Pope (Don Juan).
The modernists (especially Pound): Not Tennyson, but Browning.
The beats: Not Eliot but Williams. Not west, but east. Not leftist action but leftist life style.
Post modernism: not substance, but semiotics of substances that do not exist save for their semiotics.
We will discuss vicarious power through the claiming of origins. We will study the power dynamics of “Studied with.” “read with” “published in” “sponsored by” and “born from.” All this virtual “proof” as created by German academics ad science.How does a poem imply its “studied with,” “read with” “published in” and “born from?” To that end:
If something doesn’t fit any category, and we call it unique, do we mean we are impressed by its originality or confused as to its origins? When we are confused as to a thing’s origins, two reactions– both from the power structure result:
1.We champion the thing or artist as an exotic, a novelty, a bit of the primitive, and the raw, thus either mythologizing or eroticizing it or
2. We disparage, disdain or reject it as a “mistake” an ineptitude, a lack of craft or skill, proof that the artist is a rank amateur.
For this supposition:
- The “peasant” poetry of John Clare
- “Outsider” artists as championed by the elite.
- “Outsiders” as championed by the star making machine (Dylan, Madonna, Eminem)
- Outsiders made immortal by early death (the second generation romantics for example.
- Obscenity trials as a good career move (Baudelaire, Flaubert, Joyce, Lawrence, Ginsberg): scandal as a success story.
Some other things we will be delving into:
The modernist obsession with process and material as a value in and of itself and its relation to industrial and post industrial consciousness. The poem as a “thing made out of words.” The painting as paint. Movements against the representational toward the abstract. Movements to retain the representational through disconnects, incongruity, distortion, or comic pastiche.
Finally: the power of literary friendships (how cronies work on the golf course and in the academy). Friendship as power.
This anxiety Walt Whitman has about poetry emerges in the poem “Song of Myself,” as Whitman seeks to establish a taxonomy of poetry, a system classifying what is good poetry, what bad, but the structure he establishes keeps collapsing.
The poem is one Whitman’s fullest explanation of his theory of language and poetry, perhaps even more clear than the few prose pieces on the subject that bear his name, and it serves to show and highlight his theoretical conceptions, but also to show how his work pervaded by a fear, a deep anxiety about poetry that inflicts his poems.
He works out, in the poem, a three-tiered idea of poetry. The lowest tier, the first level, is the poetry of refinement, and death. It is the poetry that actually goes by the name “poetry” in the poem, and reflects Whitman’s ideas about language, and how language can stagnate, separate from life and reality, and be dead. The second tier is the poetry of people using everyday language — “speaking.” In the poem, Whitman praises speaking, which is in accordance with his theory about the American people and the vitality of their everyday talk, reflected, for example, in his love of slang, place names, nicknames and technical terms, but speaking is still not entirely free and safe from the death that inflicts “poetry.” “Speaking” has the life that Whitman wants, but it’s not entirely stable, and it can be buried, it can be silenced, and it can die. This leads him to a third tier of poetic language, the one he calls “singing.” “Singing” is vivified and revitalized language, language that’s not convention and not a system of signifiers, but which truly is alive, is life, is reality. “Singing” is also the elevated from of common speech, the form that raises the life that exists in language as it is actually spoken by Americans to a new level, in a sense beautifying it. It liberates language. It is, then, the opposite of “poetry,” for poetry takes common speech and refines it, strangles it, and kills the life it had. This means, of course, that “speech,” though praised by Whitman, celebrated by him, is also the site of a certain anxiety, as it is fragile and in danger of dying. There’s always the possibility it will be smothered.
Up to this point, of course, the account of poetry presented in “Song of Myself” doesn’t create any problems. It fits quite nicely with the image of Whitman as great emancipator who begins and ends barbarically yawping. No sooner is the system constructed, though, then it begins to fall apart. It collapses, and deconstructs.
The death that marks “poetry” as bad is also, Whitman finds as the poem progresses, as he sets out the ideal of “singing,” a part of “singing.” The best poetry always has a little of what makes the worst poetry the worst. It’s haunted, and always already involved with the death, the dying, the stagnated, merely signifying language that is not vivified. No sooner is the three-part structure of poetry set up in “Song of Myself,” then it disintegrates, and a panic sets in, a desperate worry about the worth of poetry. As he talks about “singing,” the poet becomes paranoid, and fears the whole project has, before his eyes, flatly failed.
Very early in the poem, Whitman moves to attack poetry and also to separate his poem from that which is commonly called poetry. There’s a bit of a sarcastic edge to the lines 30-37 and a kind of dismissal that could even be considered reminiscent of the disses of rap battles: “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?” Whitman asks. “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems … You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres of books” (32, 33, 35).
Whitman, here, is degrading poetry as such, and also setting his poem, his project, up against poetry. Even if one takes this as mere bravado, though, the braggadocio or the posturing of a young man who wants to challenge the establishment to a battle, the terms of his dismissals are important. The problem of “poetry,” as Whitman sees it, is death. Poetry – the poetry he’s rejecting and is opposing himself to – is a thing of ghosts, and sees with the eyes of dead. It is dead because of it’s distance from the reader, from the reader’s own body, life, breath and experience, is that way because it is a thing of reckoning and practice, which is exactly the kind of refinement Whitman thinks has marked the whole tradition of poetry, and which doesn’t befit America. “The whole tendency of poetry,” Whitman said in a newspaper interview in 1876, “has been toward refinement. I have felt that was not worthy of America. Something more vigorous, al fresco, was needed.”
Whitman further pushes this idea of the wrong-headed tendency of refinement in line 49, where he opposes elaboration, which is “no avail,” and opposes it to himself and his life, his soul, and other people’s lives and life in general and their souls too. “While they discuss I am silent,” Whitman writes, “and go and bathe and admire myself” (56).
Of course the contrasts here between death and life, books and experience, debates and one’s own glorious nakedness, fit neatly into the frame of Whitman as a Romantic writer, the frame that’s taught to American high school students and which works to give Whitman the reputation he has with Beat poets and ad agencies alike, but it also fits with his theory of language. The language he opposes is the language which Swinton’s book called “dead mechanism.” The language he wants is the language that is vitalizes, “something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground” (“Slang in America”). The contrasts and oppositions of Romanticism also have this poetic shape to them, and when Whitman lays out, early in one of his most famous and most recognized poems, his poetic project, he’s using that specific theory of language to set the terms.
Having more or less started with a sign declaring the death of so-called “poetry,” Whitman’s “Song of Myself” then turns to the second level in the tier of language, that of common, everyday speech. Poetry is contrasted with “voice,” with “talking,” which is better and more natural than “poetry,” but is tainting (from the start) with an anxiety:
“Speech” is presented as something that cannot be quite trusted, since it can be silenced, as in line 164, where it is “buried” – as though dead, like poetry – and “restrain’d by decorum” – also like poetry – even though it is, by nature, something that “is always vibrating” and howls. Speech, or voice, is pictured by Whitman to be something that has vitality, this life he wants his poem to have, and yet it is also something that isn’t free from the danger of death. Common people, the one he wants to celebrate, can be oppressed and suppressed, and made to act like they’re dead, even if they’re actually not (145), and the same is true with their language. “Voices” can be made “long dumb” (508), becoming like poetry. Whitman doesn’t want to attack talking, because it is, actually, a force for life that just happens to be dead or to look like it’s dead, unlike poetry with is an agent of death. He does want to distinguish and distance himself from it, though. The poet-author knows that “the talkers were talking” (38) and what they were talking about, but finds it important to point out that he, himself, is not talking.
Whitman will want to celebrate and appreciate speech, both in the ways it’s normally conceived of and as this second tier of his taxonomical account of poetry, but it’s still problematic for him. It isn’t free from the problem of “poetry.”
This can be seen when the poet engages in speech, and then wrestles with it, almost epically battling with “speech” that, personified, tries to trap him, trick him, lock him into this limitation of articulation. “Speech is the twin of my vision” (566), Whitman declares, which might be taken as a commitment to “speech,” but then that line’s immediately followed by an explanation of an adversarial relationship: Whitman isn’t attacking speech, but speech is attacking him. “It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically, / Walt you contain enough, why don’t you let it out then?” (567-568). The poet then resists “speech,” counters it, argues against it, rejects it, and ultimately rises above it. “Come now,” he says, “I will not be tantalized, you conceive too much of articulation/ Do you know O speech how the buds beneath you are folded?” (569).
Mark Baulerlein, in his work, has identified this section as the center of the struggle in Leaves of Grass, as Whitman fights to find “a language adequate to a certain emotional-spiritual import” (55), as he struggles against what Ezra Greenspan calls the “representational limitations of language.” Whitman is fighting against language here, fighting for it to be more than mere system of signs, and as it threatens to trap him in he attempts to resist, He addresses speech, here, almost as God addresses Job from the whirlwind, attempting to take the position of having confounded “speech,” which is too small for him. Speech, like a mere mortal inappropriately attempting to surmount the divine, has tried to reduce Whitman to something containable (just as “poetry” is a reduction of the life force of “speech”), but that reduction would, if Whitman, be a reduction unto death, and he rejects it:
My final merit I refuse you, I refuse putting from me what I really am.
Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you
Writing and talking do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and everything else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic (576 – 581).
Whitman is still placing “speech,” in his taxonomy of poetry, on a level above poetry – he, after all, is enthusiastically committed to everything that even seems democratic, and he will declare that talking is “the sound I love, the sound of the human voice” (585) – but he himself is doing something different. He is not one of the “talkers talking,” and has separated himself from “speech,” risen above to do something more.
What Whitman really wants to do with this second tier is save it. He wants to liberate it and elevate it, empowering the talkers with a new kind of language in the same way he has been liberated and has transcended. He knows a different type of speech, a different poetry than “poetry,” a life-ful language with which Whitman can come and set the talkers free. He knows “the password primeval” (506), the “sign of democracy”; he can “Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” (501, 502); through him, dead voices are resurrected, as he says, “Through me forbidden voices,/Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,/Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d” (516-518).
He can do all this, as presented in Leaves of Grass, because he knows this different kind of poetry, “singing.” This is the third tier, the top tier, of his taxonomy, which is presented, in the poem, as a discovery, a revelation. If the poem is taken as a narrative, Whitman engaged in “speech” and then with “speech,” and then, in rejecting it, in finding it not quite free, not quite liberated from the stagnation and stink of “poetry,” he finds this new thing, this higher plane of language with which he can transfigure and clarify the “voices veil’d” (517), the voices “long dumb” (508), “buried” and “restrain’d by decorum” (164). Right after Whitman rejects “speech” as insufficient, he discovers music. He sits silent and listens and he discovers music, starting with, hearing first, the birds. Returning the reader, perhaps, to the revelation (and the submerged anxiety) of the bird’s he heard as a child on fish-shaped Paumanok, Whitman hears “the bravuras of birds” (584) and that acts to open him up to a long list of sounds, which are, notably, not “voice,” not “talking,” even when and where they might have been taken that way by another, but music, singing and song.
The revelation of hearing the bird – this one and the first one too – is pronounced by Whitman with the sigh, “I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,/Ah this indeed is music – this suits me” (599-600). In the context of the actual poem this is, of course, also literal music, with singing soprano and violoncello and keyed cornet, but as it “shakes mad-sweet pangs through [his] belly and breast” (598), “whirls [him] wider than Uranus files” (604) and “wrenches such ardor from [him] [he] did not know [he] possess’d” (605), he is opened to “feel the puzzle of puzzles,/ And that we call Being” (609 – 610). The bird reveals music to Whitman, and music reveals Being.
Following the revelation of music in Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s lists become longer, more exuberant. For example, poem 33 starts with the exclamation of “Space and Time!” and lasts, in that ecstatic mode, for 160 lines, with the narrator declaring himself liberated, “a free companion” (817) able to sleep with any bride (818) and speak in any voice he wants (819), since he is unencumbered by any law, unrestrained by any guard (801-803). It is as if, the poetry worked out, the justification of the poem itself established, Whitman is free.
He intends to use this freedom, this revelation that leads to liberation, to breathe life into speech. This Whitman, singing Whitman, is Whitman the liberator.
There is, in Leaves of Grass, a whole list of people who do not sing, but use “voice,” for example preachers and scientists, slaves and a sea captain, people whom he does not want to reject, but whom he, with his singing, can elevate to singing by singing them. His poem, his song, which is of himself but also of them, is intended here to be and is expressed here as being a manifestation or a realization of their spirit. “I act as the tongue of you,” he says, “Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d” (1248 – 1249). This music is understood to have a kind of salvific function. “Music rolls,” Whitman says, “but not from an organ” (1061), coming to the aid of the speakers whose struggle for the breath of freedom he has. The prime example of this function of his singing and how he places “voice” in this middle tier of the taxonomy is the dying general who speaks to the narrator at the end of poem 33.
In line 869 and 870, Whitman writes, “Again gurgles the mouth of my dying general, he furiously waves with his hand,/He gasps through the clot Mind not me – mind – the entrenchments.” Here speech is presented as a) difficult, b) involved with death, c) as something the reader and the poet should ignore or transcend, precisely for the sake of the speaker. The general cannot go on, and can barely utter the words he needs to utter, but Whitman can do it for him, with his singing.
This brings us back to the title of the poem, “Song of Myself,” and the most the famous couplet, “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,/I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” (1332 – 1333). This is Whitman’s idea and ideal of poetry. This account, in Leaves of Grass, fits into Whitman’s Transcendentalism and his Romanticism and is how Whitman is typically viewed. Whitman is seen yawping, singing this barbaric, al fresco song, a sort of noble savage of verse. He is free from anxiety and invites his readers to come and romp, howl, dance naked and liberate themselves. Yet, just as “speech” was infected with the illness of “poetry,” so also “singing.” At the moment poetry – the new poetry Whitman has conceived as his project, his life’s work – is supposed to take off and soar, to expand ever out like the universe “wider and wider” “expanding, always expanding” (1185) in unstopped and unstoppable growth, the anxiety of form and theory is there again. It vexes; it depresses; it comes crushing down. The bird, at the moment of the yawp, accuses him of being tame and translatable (1331). He claims this organ-like music rolls forth from his breast, but inside that is this cavity of anxiety that won’t stop worrying him, “Ever the verxer’s hoot! hoot! hoot! (1067).
Scattered throughout the poem are these little lines speaking of doubt. There is this fear, bubbling up, that his song is no more liberated than “speech,” that is, after all, a poem. Not quite congruent with the image of Whitman, the singing savior, the one who’s come to set us free with a song, to make us as free as his uncut beard, there are these moments of despair that speak of a man bothered, a man who would have to rewrite and revise almost until the end of his life: “I know the sea of torment,” the narrator says, “doubt, despair and unbelief.”
He is, despite protestations (1289), alarmed by death. It’s not the death of his body that worries Whitman, though, but the death that seems to seize the words as they grow cold and lifeless on the page. The poem, Whitman’s masterwork, ends with this note of anxiety and fear of failure entirely entangled with declarations of hope. He concludes with the despondent note that “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean” (1341), and counters “But I shall be good health to you nevertheless” (1342), and then counters and counters again, perhaps in a debate with himself, perhaps in an oscillation between hope and despair, “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you” (1344 – 1346).
It’s a failure Whitman feels, too. The anxiety that underlies many of the poems, that seems to bubble up in them, sometimes erupts in his work in full-fledged declarations of failure. The problem of poetry sometimes seems too much to bear, and Whitman, in a poem, disavows poetry, gives up the project of vivifying words and putting life – his life – into a poem. “Conveying a sentiment and invitation, I utter and utter, / I speak not” (25-26), he says in “A Song of the Rolling Earth.” The poem sets out the transcendentalist doctrine of nature, but the poem also denounces itself for its inability to be what the transcendentalist theory would have it be. Whitman wants “A song of the rolling earth, and of words according” (1), but cannot achieve it with the tool of the poem. “Were you thinking that those were the words,” he asks, “those upright lines? those curves, angles, dots? / No, those are not the words” (2 – 3). Whitman uses the poem to commit himself or recommit himself to exactly the romantic, Transcendentalist, the vibrant, plenum of life he spoke of in “A Song of Myself,” but where once Whitman was going to yawp over the rooftops of the world, now he says utterances all have to be abandoned:
I swear I begin to see little or nothing in audible words,
All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth,
Toward him who sings the songs of the body and the truths of the earth,
Toward him who makes the dictionaries of words that print cannot touch.
I swear I see what is better than to tell the best,
It is always to leave the best untold.
When I undertake to tell the best I find I cannot,
My tongue is ineffectual on its pivot,
My breath will not be obedient to its organs,
I become a dumb man (98 – 107).
NOTE: This is the first of a series of posts by Colie Hoffman about her experience while a writer-in-residence at Sangam House, India.
It’s only been two weeks since I arrived in India, but already I feel totally at home here. The tiny village where I’m living—beautiful unto itself, with its stone paths and red mud houses—is surrounded by expansive grasslands, palm trees, and wooded dirt roads. I eat delicious, fresh vegetarian meals twice a day, someone takes care of the cooking and laundry, and I get to enjoy the company of six other writers. And while all this is magical, it’s really just a sideshow to the main attraction: For 10 straight weeks, I have all the free time in the world to write, write, write.
This paradise is Sangam House, a relatively new international writers’ residency program (in its third year) based in South India. The first two sessions took place near Pondicherry, on India’s southeast coast, but this year the location switched to a “dance village” called Nrityagram, about 20 (rough-riding!) miles outside Bangalore in the Indian state of Karnataka.
Nrityagram is very small—10 buildings plus a few in progress. We’re five miles from the nearest post office, bar, convenience store, etc. (basically, anywhere you could buy anything). The jogs I take along local roads are punctuated by stray dogs and passing herds of cows or goats. Nrityagram was created as the home of a small ensemble of classical Indian dancers, the handful of students who study with them, the administrative staff who run the place, and most recently, us—the writers at Sangam House. We’re here for only three months, but the dance community (which has been more than welcoming) lives here year-round.
During my stay I’m trying to complete the manuscript for my first book of poems. I had secretly wondered if all the time and freedom from my usual responsibilities would block me, but so far I’ve been reading, writing, and revising up a storm (knock on wood). There is the occasional off day, when the ideas don’t come or nothing I’ve done quite works—but by and large, my days here have been successful, productive, and inspiring.
About half the writers at Sangam House at any one time are from various states in India, and half are from abroad. When I arrived, my fellow residents were from Kolkata, Lucknow (both in northern India), and Copenhagen. Rajat writes in English and Bengali, Pratibha writes in Hindi, and Louise translates from English to Danish (I am the sad soul who speaks and writes only in English). Since then we have been joined by four other writers. Most people are working on fiction projects while here, but in India the identity chasm between fiction and poetry is not so stark—many writers do both and publish both.
So what’s a day like? my family keeps asking. There’s no exact schedule, but regular things (meals, people waking up and sharing coffee and the paper, people going for walks) happen at regular-ish times. Generally we make our own breakfasts, work, join the dancers for Indian lunch, work, and then have Indian food together in Sangam’s common space for dinner. After dinner we share booze and conversation, sometimes heading back to our rooms early to continue working, other times talking in small groups late into the night.
To give myself some structure, I try to divide time between reading—the work of other writers here (those who write in English), the books I brought with me, or essays or poems I find online—and writing. I always try first to start a new poem, but on the days that doesn’t work, I revise poems in progress or reengineer old ones that never got off the ground. While I’m accustomed to creating in multiple bursts rather than sustained periods, the longer I’m here, the more I’m able to work for long stretches at a time. As a result, my creative process—namely, how deeply I’m able to think about something and how much I’m able to linger in an idea and get to know it—is changing. I suspect I won’t know the real effects of this till much later, but it’s refreshing to feel things moving around in my head in unfamiliar ways.