TheThe Poetry
≡ Menu

Poetry and Poetics

Paul Breslin, in his introduction to The Psycho-Political Muse, outlines the psychological theories influencing the radical poetry of the 1950s and 60s. Finding that the psyche is culturally conditioned, recent psychological theories found that neurosis can be identified as a type of resistance to social norms. Correlatively, art was seen as counter-acting repression, freeing consciousness from the constraints dominating the acculturated ego. In this context, the rhetoric of the New Left shifts, according to Breslin, from focus on class struggle to the opposition of “the falsification of consciousness in all classes.” Liberation from “the system” or “the establishment” was thought to come, not so much from the overthrow of economic relations, but through the individual’s “relative immunity” to society’s interlocking network of illusions.  As such, poets “had only to look about [themselves], or even into [their] own soul[s], to be confronted with the crisis of American society,” making the private and public realms effectively interchangeable. In this context, Breslin argues, poets chose to either

<blockquote>become radical Fruedian versions of the poète maudit, exhibiting their distorted consciousness as representative of society’s distorted consciousness, or to speak from the unconscious, which is untainted by acculturation but, for that very reason, has no language.</blockquote>

With this framework we can understand the emerging trends in experimental American poetry during this period, including, especially for the Beats, the proliferation of surrealist themes and techniques, who often alternately positioned themselves as pathologically warped or as transmitters of an “untainted” consciousness. I would include with these responses identified by Breslin a third approach particular to many of the Beats—the poet as alchemist, transmuting the socio-political reality using the mundane elements found in the (social) environment with the transformative energies of consciousness. The Beats attempt to repair society intrinsically by conjoining its disparate elements in inventive combinations, or, as Ginsberg may have termed them, “reality sandwiches” (a phrase he used for the title for his fourth collection). This approach reflects surrealist tradition, positing that consciousness itself—even the acculturated consciousness—contains the necessary ingredients for its restoration, if it is allowed opportunity for free association and play. This “alchemical” approach, like surrealist collage, imbues acculturated experience with new meaning through the synthesis of its fragmented parts and immediacy of presentation.

Gregory Corso is considered one of the founding Beats met Ginsberg in Greenwich Villagein 1950 and, who over the next few years encouraged and mentored him. This happened after a prison term Corso served for an adolescent mishap, during which he read the dictionary, Shelley’s poetry. Corso’s reputation began growing with the publication of his second book, Gasoline (1958) and blossomed after he published The Happy Birthday of Death (1960). Around this time Corso spend several years in Europe, especiallyParis, deepening his appreciation for modern and Romantic poetry and further exposing him to the surrealists.

Corso’s single most important influence is Percy Shelley. In addition to his frequent allusions to him in his poetry, he is reported to have reverently kissed the carpet in the poet’s old quarters at Oxfordand had his ashes scattered near his tomb in Rome. For Corso, Shelley is a “revolutionary of the spirit” who transcends the mundane through poetic imagination. Corso’s surrealist poetics can be seen as a continuation of Shelly’s poetic model in a 20th century context. In his Defense of Poetry, Shelley analogizes poetry and the imagination as the dialectical counterpart to reason. Whereas logic is analysis, poetry is synthesis, a harmonious blending of external and internal impressions. Poetry recaptures life’s immediacy and “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehendable combinations of thought.” This process is alchemical in nature, making good and beautiful out of what is corrupt and ugly. Shelley envisions the poet as a word combiner, who, through his imagination, synthesizes thought in vivifying and regenerative ways.

Surrealism provides Corso a way of applying Shelley’s model to modern experience. In the poem, “No Doubt What He Saw,” Corso presents the image of the “Daisytaur”—a bull conjoined to a daisy—an icon of the imagination’s ability to unveil the wholeness and harmony of the world. The speaker recounts his childhood memory of seeing a horse with a daisy in its mouth and being struck by the juxtaposition of beast’s power and the flower’s fragility. The child interprets the sight as anticipating the eventual synthesis and harmony of the plant and animal kingdom. But his “playmate” is skeptical until the child Corso takes his friend to “a field of burning hay” and shows him “[a] pastoral metamorphosis! / A Daisytaur” (46). As Gregory Stephenson points out, this story puts “[s]eemingly strange attractions and affinities, incongruous unions of unlike things…in full accordance with the deepest natural law,” suggesting that “all life and being…is ever seeking to restore itself to its original state, the disparate parts striving to come together again”

Corso’s poems are filled with many variations of the “Daisytuar,” including the list of “Saleable Titles” to The Happy Birthday of Death, which Corso provides opposite the book’s title page. These alternate titles, some of which he was genuinely considering, form incongruent adjective-noun pairs such as “Fried Shoes,” “Pipe Butter,” “Radiator Soup,” “Flash Gordan soap,” and “Gorgoyle liver.” Like “Daisytaur,” these constructions isolate the basic surrealist technique of forming incompatible, transformative juxtapositions, and like Shelley, Corso plays the role of the synthesizer and alchemist, transmuting images of experience through combination and metamorphosis.

In The Happy Birthday of Death, he deliberately confronts many of the destructive and erroneous concepts at work in contemporary society and weighs them against a surrealist vision of transcending and transforming modern experience. The longer, popular poems of the collection explore, in an unorganized but encyclopedic way, the subjects identified in their titles: “Marriage,” “Bomb,” “Food,” “Hair,” “Police,” and “Army.” Corso’s troubled or sarcastic treatment of these topics—which, for contemporary audiences, represent sources of modern anxiety—forms a layer of implicit criticism through a light-hearted iteration of the poeté mauidit. Stephenson names these poems “anti-odes.” They depict a mentally unstable speaker who reflects a modern collective consciousness, revealing layers of psychosis and absurdity. They are humorous and incisive in their treatment of their subject, representing what Michael Skau calls Corso’s “peculiar strain of surrealism, with its combination of humor and threat.”

In “Marriage,” Corso give a free rein to worries about marriage, loosely following an imaginary chronology of events in which the speaker is introduced to the parents of his love interest, gets at the ceremony, is teased by in-laws at the reception, and eventually finds himself trapped by fatherhood and domestic malaise. The situation is comical but poses sincere questions. The speaker’s opening query, “Should I get married? Should I be good?” typifies the modern adult male’s social situation in existential and moral terms. Skeptical of established cultural traditions, he is unable or unwilling to be subsumed into prescribed roles, and thus he imagines himself resisting expectations through various clownish pranks. This pattern is established at the dating stage: “Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood? / Don’t take her to movies but to cemeteries / tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets” (29). He thinks about “Flash Gordon soap” while meeting his fiancée’s parents, he substitutes “Pie Glue” for “I do” in the ceremony, and defiantly rejects sexual consummation on the wedding night because everyone knows and expects it happen: “Everyone knowing! I’d be almost inclined not to do anything! / Stay up all night! Stare that hotel clerk in the eye! / Screaming: I deny honeymoon! I deny honeymoon!” (30). The speaker’s rejection of social norms stems from a perceived contradiction between his autonomy as an individual and social customs. To him, the concept of marriage and all its trappings are “obscene” and threatening.

Yet, the speaker is obligated to attempt to reconcile himself to marriage because the alternative—a life of bachelorhood—promises a lonely demise in old age. Thus, his imagined compromise is resistant participation characterized by arbitrary behavior and displays of irreverence. He baldly asserts his autonomy and freedom through spontaneous declarations and through substituting appropriate interaction and communication with verbal non-sense. Later in the poem, for instance, he imagines himself incapable of normal fatherly discourse, shouting, instead, absurdities to his children: “Christmas teeth! Radiant brains! Apple deaf!” To fend off suburban ennui, he executes Dadaist pranks:

So much to do! like sneaking into Mr Jones’ house late at night
And cover his gold clubs with 1920 Norwegian books
Like hanging a picture of Rimbaud on the lawnmower
Like past Tannu Tuva postage stamps all over the picket fence

And when the mayor comes to get my vote tell him
When you are going to stop people killing whales!
And when the milkman comes leave him a note in the bottle
Penguin dust, bring me penguin dust, I want penguin dust— (30-31)

He identifies himself to others as one who defies and rejects authority or only grudgingly participates in domestic rituals. Thus, whether he foregoes marriage, accepts his social roles or does so with qualification and resistance, the result is the same—he is stripped of his identity and alienated from others. Given the impossibility of his situation, with none of these alternatives being adequate, absurdist humor is perhaps the most expedient response, as it foregrounds his resistance and affords him, at least, the consolation of retaining a degree of integrity and identity. These acts deflate the social situations in which they occur; their spontaneity exercises and preserves the speaker’s imaginative vitality and playful innocence. In other words, creative surrealist clowning is his vehicle for coping with the dehumanizing influences of social institutions.

Yet, behind the humorous mask is a lonely, paranoid persona—the modern individual who, due to a variety of social and psychological forces, does not know who he is or what he wants. Even when the prospects sound nearly ideal, such as the “beautiful sophisticated woman” in the New York City penthouse, he is dismissive and subjective: “No, can’t imagine myself married to that pleasant prison dream.” In as far as he remains without companionship, his wellbeing is threatened, explaining his sense of urgency and his tone. He becomes a mentally unstable figure, a poète maudit forced into “madness” by modern life. Corso thus amplifies the implicit critical function of surrealism by positioning himself as the maniacal figure oscillating between resistance to society and ironic embrace of the absurdity of his condition.

In many of the poems of Happy Birthday of Death, Corso writes like he does “Marriage,” from a pathologically warped or maniacal state of mind, projecting a persona who, as Stepheson puts it, “unleash[es] an arsenal of antic, vatic babble and bombast.” Corso’s style generates an accelerated tempo that stem from both the uninterrupted progression of images and their discontinuity. The combination of spontaneity and breathless forward movement generate a “hysterical” vision that disrupts and decomposes reality. In several of these longer, subject-based poems in Happy Birthday of Death, Corso synthesizes mania and alchemical transformation through this stylistic technique, which one might term the hysterical catalogue: a litany of images often expressed with strained syntax and with increasing intensity and semantic disparity, emulating frenzy or ecstasy. This hysterical tone is often visionary, elevating the poetic utterance to the register of prophecy or shamanic chant.

Corso’s “Bomb” is the quintessential articulation of the hysterical catalogue. He articulates society’s absurd and psychotic relationship to the bomb with the hyperbolic but sincere observation that

All man hates you     they’d rather die by car-crash   lighting     drowning

Falling off a roof     electric-chair     heart-attack     old age     old age     O Bomb

They’d rather die by anything but you (Happy Birthday of Death, insert)

The speaker reasons that he “cannot hate” the bomb because it is shares the same purpose and affects the same end as other weapons and fatal forces: “Do I hate the mischievous thunderbolt     the jawbone of an ass / The bumpy club of One Million B.C.”?    He even argues that dying by an explosion is superior because of its suddenness, quickness and “extravagance,” and pays homage to the bomb with a litany of images that catalog the details of an apocalyptic explosion. The images are fantastically hyperbolic:

Turtles exploding over Istanbul
The jaguar’s flying foot
soon to sink in arctic snow
Penguins plunged against the Sphinx
The top of the Empire State
Arrowed in a broccoli field in Sicily
Eiffel shaped like a C in Magnolia Gardens
St. Sophia peeling over Sudan

Similar images throughout the poem, whether it refers directly to the effects of the explosion or not, create a wild, associational texture, reflecting the bomb’s disruptive force. But as the speaker progresses through the vision, the images, rather than outlining horror and death, turn toward non-threatening, pleasant scenes. First are “the temples of ancient times” are restored through “Electrons Protons Neutrons / gathering Hesperean hair / walking the dolorousgulfofArcady…” The speaker envisions the explosion not merely effecting physical reality but also collapsing time and space, bringing together historical and psychological realities. The bomb, in other words, turns reality into a dream-world wherein any imaginable associational possibility can be realized. This sur-reality, moreover, is depicted in utopian terms, wherein all aspects of reality are reconciled. At one point in the poem, this vision becomes a baseball game:

Lo the visiting team of Present
the home team of Past
Lyre and tube together joined
Hark the hotdog soda olive grape
gala galaxy robed and uniformed
commissary     O the happy stands
Ethereal root and cheer and boo
The billioned all-time attendance
The Zeusian pandemonium
Hermes racing Owens
the Spitball of Buddha
Christ striking out
Luther stealing third

Seemingly contradictory religious figures and ideas are re-contextualized into an innocuous contest, trivializing their differences and historical identities, and emphasizing instead their common humanity.

The bomb becomes cosmological and spiritual. The speaker “stands before [its] fantastic lily door” with offerings of roses and musk. In the final, climatic thirty lines, the speaker shifts into Psalmodic rapture—“BOOM ye skies and BOOM ye suns / BOOM BOOM ye moons ye stars BOOM / night ye BOOM ye days ye BOOM /”—which devolves into hysterical babble: “Barracuda BOOM and cougar BOOM / Ubangi BOOM orangutang / BING BANG BONG BOOM bee bear baboon / ye BANG ye BONG ye BING…” At this moment, the poet is simultaneously ecstatic and manic, in both adoration and blind hysteria. He functions as a prophet or shaman, allowing his consciousness to be subsumed by its subject, and the bomb’s chaos-generating powers, reflected in the poet’s hysteria, are integrated into a transcendent vision.

The poem’s form mimics its subject, not just in its pictographic imitation of a mushroom cloud, but in its “explosion” of stimuli, overpowering and disorienting the reader. Cutting against an illusory order in the progression of thought, the poem, vortex-like, cascades aurally and visually, overpowering its logical structure. Through the catalog of images, lack of punctuation, miscegenation of diction registers and shifts in semantic reference, the poem disarms and imposes its will, catching the reader up in its forceful sweep. Rather than persuading through argument, the hysterical catalogue immerses the reader in visionary energy. As a result, the audience “experiences” the bomb—both as a fragmenting and chaotic force and as a vehicle for spiritual ecstasy in its trajectory of transcendence. The poem transforms the deathly powers of the bomb into an experience of rapture and beauty.

The poem demands different interpretations in different realms of discourse—on the political level, it is an invective against weapons of mass destruction and the “culture” of the bomb. But in order to see the poem’s implicit critique, one must perceive its sarcasm and humor. Corso assumed no reader would take his bomb “worship” seriously. In this sense the speaker’s embrace of the bomb is sardonic, a parody of a society so petrified by the bomb’s threat that it effectively idolizes it, paralyzed by fear. The poem attempts to liberate humanity from its terror by showing the futility of this kind of abstract anxiety. Of course it also implicitly critiques the political ideas and choices responsible for creating fear in the first place.

Conversely, on the philosophical and existential level, the poem is partly sincere. Although the bomb is made and controlled by humans, the average person’s experience of its dormant threat is passive and intangible; seemingly, it is “[n]ot up to man whether [the bomb] boom[s] or not,” as the ordinary person has no direct control over the arms race. In a letter to Paul Blackburn, Corso writes that, although the poem is “very much against the bomb,” his approach is the “right way” because “one must not hate, for that which one hates is apt to destroy.” In this context, the poem confronts the dilemma of post-atomic man and offers an alternative to terror and paralysis. The alternative is not literal bomb worship but an embrace of the totality of human experience, including mortality—a position implicit in the title The Happy Birthday of Death and in many of the book’s poems. Rather than urging abstract, philosophical resignation or mere escapism, Corso overcomes the psychological crisis by transforming the bomb into a symbol of primal energy and imagination. Contrary to expectations, the bomb’s detonation actualizes, in a cosmic sense, the conditions of the imagination, creating a space of total freedom and play.

Thus, like “Marriage,” “Bomb” responds to and transforms the threats of modern civilization through a bold assertion of the alchemical powers of human consciousness. This interpretation supports Stephenson’s claim that “[p]oetry for Corso is a mode of rebuking, rebutting and refuting the pheonomenological universe and of imposing inner desire on the external world.” The poems of The Happy Birthday of Death achieve both these objectives, partly through employing the technique I have called the hysterical catalogue. Through it, Corso introduces a new, distinctly social application for surrealism, absorbing destructive, dehumanizing forces of the psycho-social conditions of the mid-century.

Primalism: the testing for all aesthetic value wagered on the energies of the primal, the root, the raw, the atavistic, the unconscious, with a corresponding mistrust of the social conventions, the art of the decorative and contrived, and, above all, a dismissal of the thinking faculty save in its aspect as “process of ongoing revery.” A primalist will tend to play down the aphoristic and proverbial didactics of pre-romantic writers, and judge such pre-romantic works for their dynamism, their underlying sexual/political connotations, and their foreshadowing of romantic-modernist concerns. In effect, Shakespeare’s polyglot flights of decorative speech, rather than being loved in and of themselves as word play, will be seen as a slight impediment rather than the chief glory of his work, and the rather conventional, pro-monarchy, pro-triumphalist, mob despising politics of Shakespeare will be “rehabilitated” as it were to fit some process of liberation or revolution which the bard never intended. In effect, the primalist will quarry stones from the quarry of Shakespeare and his contemporaries that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would not have even considered picking up. The romantics, being, almost all primalists (exception Keats, and, certainly, John Clare) bequeathed to the decadents, the symbolists, and the first modernists certain tendencies still very much with us. I will note them as follows:

1. The tendency to prefer the abnormative as somehow morally superior to the normal.
2. The tendency to see the pretty at a far remove from the beautiful.
3.The tendency to see in the process of children and so-called “primitives” greater integrity of invention.
4. The tendency to loathe the authoritarian strains of aphorism, the dictum, the dispassionate thought and to replace these with conjecture/ambiguity, equivocation, the strains of transcendence and spiritual uplift especially in the realms of mystery peculiar to mind/body awareness and meditation
6. A bias that anything eastern is superior to the west and can not possibly be subject to the same corruption
7. A belief in the primal and a strong disposition to impose this “value” on women and children (the life force), and the “othered” (Blacks , indians), what I like to call “UGGING” (in reference to the ug language assigned to primitives in movies)..
8. A love/hate relationship to science and the rational
9. Wilderness as divine energy rather than as nemesis, and a belief along with Emerson that all things in nature thunder forth the true moral order. Nothing “natural” or “organic” can be evil since it is the ground zero of all mortal order.( The exact quote from Emerson is “All things in nature thunder forth the ten commandments”).
10. An obsession with both troped of hyper-reality and numbness (torpor, love/death, stupor, decay, languor, enui)

One final attribute I will submit is the most radical change between the late age of reason artists and romanticism/modernism/post-modernism, and for this, I need to borrow some terms from Jung’s personality types (An expansion and more in depth understanding of the four humors as well as the Dionysian/Apollonian binary:

11: A changing of primary and subsidiary functions. Whereas, thought and feeling ( were in the prime position throughout most of literary history, intuition and sensation began to dominate, to assume a larger emphasis in the 19th century and up to the present moment. Emotion belongs to sensation as much as feeling since feeling is, unlike emotion, a cognitive decision, a rationalizing of emotion. In the past, thoughts and feelings were “understood” and extroverted and the decorative devices and supporting functions were sensation (details) and intuition (those little breaches in form that proved the rule). Sensation and intuition at all times served as an agreed upon ground of thought and feeling (Carpe diem, attitudes toward mortality, etc). This gives all of literature before the romantics a far more didactic cast. Shakespeare’s wordplay was so amazing that sensation and intuition often seem to dominate in his plays (not really in his sonnets). Shakeseare’s decorative gifts were so overwhelming that they spilled over the boundaries of thought and feeling they were meant to express. Still, to understand shakespeare as he would have been understood, he was far more didactic, far more “agreed” upon,far more in step with his time than we might like to think. Shakeseare was not a primalist. Ok… so let’s refine number 11:

11. the reversal of the four functions (thought, feeling, intuition, sensation) in terms of priority. sensation and intuition rule and Thought and feeling serve as subsidiary functions. This leads to what I will call the genius of “stupidity.” I see several kinds of stupidity endemic to romatnic/modernist/post-modernist thought: the stupidity of the unknown, the stupidity of the atavistic,the stupidity of sheer process, the stupidity of object/subject confusion, the stupidity of the surreal, the stupidity of the irrational: In effect: the unknown, the atavistic, the process or looping of tropes in terms of self consciousness and collage, the surreal, the abnormative and the insane.

I define stupidity here as meaning :to be stunned, stupefied out of the expected patterns or thought and feeling to the point where there is little or no agreed upon context, and the subjective conscious (or unconscious) dominates.

The most dominant primalist among English poets is Worsdworth. His use of the meditative, confessional lyric as first developed by his friend Coleridge is still the most prevalent force in contemporary poetics. His influence on Emerson was immanence. The romantic who rebelled most successfully against him (Keats) did so only in terms of Wordsworth’s verbal clumsiness, his rather drab and stripped down style. Keats, refusing to divorce the pretty and decorative from the beautiful and integral set the tone for the Walter Pater influenced Aesthetes. They may seem utterly divorced from subsequent modernists, but the difference is merely one of emphasizing the decorative over the supposed substantive and ontological. Lets look at an excerpt from Wordsworth’s Preludes, and then consider how this passage was lifted to create the main guts of the famous poem “A Slumber did my spirit cease: Line 381, of the Preludes, first part:

…I have felt/
not seldom, even in that tempestuous time/
those hallowed and pure motions of the sense
which seem in their simplicity to own
an intellectual charm, that calm delight
which, if I err not, surely must belong
to those first born affinities that fit
our new existence to existing things
and, in our dawn of being, constitute
the bond of union betwixt life and joy.

This is sensibility which Wordsworth insists belongs to the time of “first born affinities”–the affective, irrational, unconscious brain rather than to the rational and cognitive brain. This delight is “calm” as are the strong emotions recollected in “tranquility.” This is the merge point of serenity and passion–and, of course, it must go back to the origins, to our beginnings–sensation and intimation plus mere motion or its utter lack are the prerequisites for the highest intellectual charms in Wordsworth: the atavistic, the infantile, the unformed, the uncontrived, the more or less pre-cognitive state is where all true poetry and art exist (according to Wordsworth). Note his use of pure motion. Pure motion is, in a manner of speaking is no motion at all, but rather unwilled, mere process:

No motion has she now, no force
she neither hears nor sees
rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
with rocks, and stones, and trees.

Sense and senselessness then must be untouched and uncorrupted by cognition or an over privileged thinking toward them–when purified and purged of the inorganic and overly rational, they are the true doors of perception and to the transcendent–to unknow, to go back to a world before thought, before time–to find the primal there that exists for both Wordsworth and even so disaffected seeming a poet as Stevens (whose Irish Cliffs I just gave a nod to).

1.

So what are some other major facets of Ashbery’s relationship to American pragmatism? How would we characterize pragmatism, and in what ways does Ashbery’s work suggest our characterization? Does Ashbery ever explicitly mention James, Dewey, or Rorty? (I know of only one place currently where Rorty mentions Ashbery; it is in his introduction to Essays on Heidegger and Others, where he writes, “I have given up on the attempt to find something common to Michal Graves’s buildings, Pynchon and Rushdie’s novels, Ashbery’s poems, various sorts of popular music, and the writings of Heidegger and Derrida.” (Rorty, 1)

Ashbery does explicitly mention James, in a poem called, appropriately, “My Philosophy of Life.” The passage in question reads,

But then you remember something William James
wrote in some book of his you never read–it was fine, it had the fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone. (www.poets.org)

It is difficult to read this passage in the context of pragmatism without wondering if the “Someone” in the second-to-last line in the excerpt is Ashbery. Notice the exquisite intimacy with which this “Someone” shares in the “something William James / wrote”: this “Someone” has felt, innately, what James has said, even before James formulated it. Furthermore, the “you” in the first line of the excerpt remembers something James wrote, even though he or she never read it. We can be forgiven, then, if we go one to suggest a relationship between James and the “Someone” in the passage that borders on telepathic, it is so close and “intuitive.”

2.

In “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism,” Rorty offers three characterizations of what he calls the “central doctrine” of pragmatism:

My first characterization of pragmatism is that it is simply anti-essentialism applied to notions like “truth,” “knowledge,” “language,” “morality,” and similar objects of philosophical theorizing.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 112)

So a second characterization of pragmatism might go like this: there is no epistemological difference between truth about what ought to be and truth about what is, nor any metaphysical difference between facts and values, nor any methodological difference between morality and science. (Voparil and Bernstein, 113)

“Let me sum up by offering a third and final characterization of pragmatism: it is the doctrine that there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones […] To accept the contingency of starting-points is to accept our inheritance from, and our conversation with, our fellow-humans as our only source of guidance. “ (Voparil and Bernstein, 115)

3.

The first characterization is essentially pointing towards a vigilant awareness regarding the pitfalls (and pratfalls) of holding too tightly onto abstract concepts. “Anti-essentialism” means that there is no central essence to ideas like “truth,” “knowledge,” and “morality” – that these are contingent notions that depend entirely on our position within history, (as opposed to a neutral, extra-historical position). It is a pluralistic notion that echoes Ashbery’s opening question in “The One Thing That Can Save America,” “Is anything central?” And it also is a rallying call for embracing what Keats called “negative capability,” or the ability to embrace ambiguity, the messiness of life, as opposed to running from it and trying to escape through, among other things, empty abstractions like “truth” and “language.”

4.

A short poem by Ashbery, chosen at random, might help illustrate our point. Here is the entire “Rain Moving In,” from A Wave:

The blackboard is erased in the attic
And the wind turns up the light of the stars,
Sinewy now. Someone will find out, someone will know.
And if somewhere on this great planet
The truth is discovered, a patch of it, dried, glazed by the sun,
It will just hang on, in its own infamy, humility. No one
Will be better for it, but things can’t get any worse.
Just keep playing, mastering as you do the step
Into disorder this one meant. Don’t you see
It’s all we can do? Meanwhile, great fires
Arise, as of haystacks aflame. The dial has been set
And that’s ominous, but all your graciousness in living
Conspires with it, now that this is our home:
A place to be from, and have people ask about. (Ashbery, 733)

For starters, we must call attention to the fantastically innovative images that begin the poem.

A blackboard being erased in an attic might sound silly to some – it is somewhat silly, because so odd – and yet its silliness, its oddness, is subsumed, or somehow augmented sublimely, by its strange connotative power, suggestive of new starts, or past thoughts “erased” to allow the new in. This confluence of the image of a blackboard with the notion of thoughts changing, or being “erased,” is made more vivid by the location of the blackboard in an attic, a space which is itself a pungent, full and rich metaphor, like a basement, for the unconscious, where we keep everything we’d forgotten. The power of these combined suggestions is, I believe, what Rorty means by imaginative vision – he is speaking of an ability to question outworn suppositions we have formed over time about what a poem, say, should be like – what kinds of images it should contain, how it should develop, what it should be about, what it should do. These presuppositions are questioned by the very fact of the Ashberian poem’s existence. In reading it, we find ourselves not only reading this poem, but, in a Bloomian manner, reading every poem and every image we’ve ever encountered, along with the expectations this history of reading has constructed over time – and, because of the radical strangeness of the Ashbery poem, revising that entire history of expectations.

5.

(Perhaps this is why Ashbery is so often described as a difficult, puzzling, or just plain odd poet: like a powerfully successful Dadaist, or a good artist, he is constantly pushing, poking, nudging, or exploding the boundary line we contain in our minds between what separates our expectations for comfortable, possibly complacent normalcy and our desire and hope for grand and original innovation. This is why, once we read Ashbery, we can never read or think about poetry in the same way again. For in questioning our presuppositions about literature,

Ashbery questions our presuppositions about why we read and write in the first place.

He helps us to imagine, through the expansiveness and expressiveness of his thought, outside our worn imaginations; in doing so, he galvanizes or kick-starts our tired imaginations, our complacency, our unwillingness to budge or change. Ashbery’s poems force us to reflect upon the difference between invoking the abstraction “morality,” versus thinking about what this word means, individually and idiosyncratically, for us, within our own behavior, thoughts, feelings and actions. It’s the difference between such an invocation and an encounter with an actual person – which is to say, completely unprecedented, with very few rules or signposts to follow aside from our own idiosyncratic imaginative makeup.)

6.

Second characterization: What does it mean to say that there is no difference between facts and values, should and is, morality and science? How does Ashbery’s poetry allude to or bring this notion into articulation through its own flexible and fluid network of vocabularies?

Perhaps we can take my Corliss Williamson jersey as an example. Was it a fact or a value that the jersey, being red and white, and with the word “Arkansas” written on its front, represented to me the college team on which Williamson played – and therefore ignited within me the desire to buy and wear the jersey, because I was so fond of that player on that team? I suppose you could get away with saying that the letters and colors are chunks of objective “facts” about the jersey, and my desire for those “facts” signifies my subjective valuing of those facts, but this just sounds hopelessly entangled, too complicated, obvious, redundant, maddeningly rigid, and uninteresting, and furthermore suggests a central core of my person on one hand (my values), and reality on the other hand (the red and white of the jersey) that somehow meet and lock and cohere together.

But isn’t this what Lauterbach is saying that Ashbery doesn’t do? And is this actually experientally what happens?

7.

Here’s Rorty again, from Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

On the view of philosophy which I am offering, philosophers should not be asked for arguments against, for example, the correspondence theory of truth or the idea of the “intrinsic nature of reality.” [...] Interesting philosophy is rarely an examination of the pros and cons of a thesis. Usually it is, implicitly or explicitly, a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises great things. [...] The latter “method” of philosophy is the same as the “method” of utopian politics or revolutionary science (as opposed to parliamentary politics, or normal science). The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behavior, for example, the adoption of new scientific equipment or new social institutions. This sort of philosophy does not work piece by piece, analyzing concept after concept, or testing thesis after thesis. Rather, it works holistically and pragmatically. (Rorty, 8 – 9)

Rorty is saying that to discuss my experience desiring the Williamson jersey through the notion of facts versus values is to use a vocabulary that does not help me explain what I am trying to explain. It is an inadequate tool for what I want to do. As he might say, no one really cares if my values met my facts at the moment I saw that jersey – that somehow some truth about me met some truth in the world. This sounds hopelessly weird and non-useful. What people do care is how my desire for that jersey matches up with who I was as a kid – my self-image then. If I would have bought the jersey and worn it in the mall – and if the jersey would have then incited curiosity in another person, this person would not have thought about my wearing the jersey in terms of facts versus values, chunks of reality versus other chunks. They would have possibly wondered, “who is that white, overweight kid?” They would not have wondered, “what is the relationship between that kid’s values and the facts of him wearing that jersey?”

8.

How does Ashbery achieve his GREAT THEME, the changing of one’s self-image? Through redescribing “lots and lots of things in new ways.” (A change in clothes, a redescription, leads to a change in self-image.)

9.

Now imagine that, that day, my parents did decide to buy me the jersey. Not only that, but I wore it that day in the mall, and my father took a picture of me wearing it. Now imagine that, after twenty years pass, I find that picture and wish to say something interesting and helpful, philosophically, about it. Would it be more helpful to

  1. read a description in which I attempted to cover the photograph inch by inch and describe every single thing I see across the gridwork of the picture, aiming for a kind of miniature totality?
  2. read a description in which I redescribe the picture, noticing new things about it, and in noticing new things about, recreating (as opposed to attempting to copy) the picture?
  3. look at both descriptions, and view them as alternative descriptions, two out of many, as opposed to searching for one way that is more right, because it corresponds more with reality?

10.

Our third option, the pluralistic and pragmatist notion of alternative ways of looking at a situation, as opposed to one way over another, is as endemic to Ashbery’s poetry as it is to Wallace Stevens’ poetry-philosophy and William James’s philosophy-poetry. It explains why there is no difference between morality and science. Because as soon as we posit a difference, we are splitting reality up into chunks again, and pretending that we are the kinds of beings that can know whether or not our scientific descriptions of the world more correspond with “the way things are” than our poetic descriptions. We can’t know that, which explains the value of pragmatist and pluralistic thought.

11.

For another useful illustration of this pragmatist notion of the precedence of self-image, or temperament, over the rightness or wrongness of theses, here is another entire Ashbery poem, called “Drunken Americans,” from Houseboat Days.

I saw the reflection in the mirror
And it doesn’t count, or not enough
To make a difference, fabricating itself
Out of the old, average light of a college town,

And afterwards, when the bus trip
Has depleted my pocket of its few pennies
He was seen arguing behind steamed glass,
With an invisible proprietor. What if you can’t own

This one either? For it seems that all
Moments are like this: thin, unsatisfactory
As gruel, worn away more each time you return to them.
Until one day you rip the canvas from its frame

And take it home with you. You think the god-given
Assertiveness in you has triumphed
Over the stingy scenario: these objects as real as meat,
As tears. We are all soiled with this desire, at the last moment, the last.

What if we were to read this poem as a chronicling of the way in which the poet tries on various self-images, various jerseys? And during that process, attempts to figure out which jersey is “really him,” only to abandon that project? The poem begins with the poet seeing a reflection in the mirror (there’s that pregnant Ashberian vagueness), but we can assume here that the reflection is his own. Ashbery questions this reflection, for he knows a more accurate record of his various self-images would be a hall of mirrors, as opposed to one mirror. We are then given a second description, perhaps of the poet, perhaps of the poet somehow seen by someone else, perhaps of someone else, and here the image bears a strange resemblance to the earlier image of a face in the mirror, only here we have a man “seen arguing behind steamed glass, / With an invisible proprietor.” The static notion of a mirror reflecting has been replaced with a more suggestively vague image of a man behind a window, arguing “with an invisible proprietor.” This seems to be a re-description of the earlier image, where Ashbery also argued “with an invisible proprietor,” though there the proprietor is a metaphor for Ashbery’s reflection of himself in the mirror. Finally we have a third image of the poet ripping canvas from the frame. In a way, each successive image in our sequence of characterizations of thoughts about self-image has become richer, more pregnant with suggestion – we move from a mirror reflection, to someone arguing behind a window, to a painting, but the argument is always the same – “that’s not me, that couldn’t be me! I contain multitudes! I am voluminous, prodigious, prolific! One image of me could never work as a replacement for the polysemous me!”

And yet, characteristic of Ashbery, he leaves the nature of that desire in the final line utterly ambiguous. Is it the desire for personalities less like Heraclitus’s river, and with more of the stability of objects like “meat” and “tears”? If so, it’s an understandable desire, (it goes with us until “the last moment,” our deaths), but an impossible (“soiled”) one.

12.

We might think of Rorty’s third characterization of American pragmatism – “there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones […]” – as the humanist cloak that covers, or the humanist air that permeates, his two earlier characterizations. For to say that there are no constraints on inquiry is to appeal to a finite humanity whose possibilities are still undreamed of. In a sense, it is also an appeal to and for solidarity, as there is no escaping, according to this maxim, the human community, which is the final arbiter, as opposed to God or any neutral starting-point. All our talk about redescription and self-image are contingent upon this notion, for there is no redescription or self-image without the human community to provide us with walls for bouncing off our redescriptions and self-images. Perhaps this is why Ashbery’s poetics provide us with such a polysemous chorus of voices – such poems indirectly suggest the richness of human attitudes, stances, temperaments, while refusing to gesture towards something outside these attitudes. All of which is to say, that although we seem to often want to apotheosize Ashbery, Ashbery has apotheosized nothing.

13.

I took the first part of the title of this piece from Ashbery’s “Fragment,” and I’d like to end with another excerpt from that poem. The excerpt is yet another intimate reading of how we read the world and ourselves; it is also, in its final lines, an appeal to a kind of idiosyncratic solidarity, in a mode of poetics that is utterly Ashberian.

The part in which you read about yourself
Grew out of this. Your interpretation is
Extremely bitter and can serve no profitable end
Except continual development. Best to break off
All further choice. In
This way new symptoms of interest having a
Common source could produce their own ingenious
Way of watering into the past with its religious
Messages and burials. Out of this cold collapse
A warm and near unpolished entity could begin. (Ashbery, 230 – 231)

That “warm and near unpolished entity” is the “new being” we are aided to become through the “power of imagination.” Through the collapse of old ways of imagining, old vocabularies, old metaphors, old self-images – “the past with its religious / Messages and burials” – we find ourselves continuously facing “the first day / of the new experience,” helped by Ashbery’s astonishing redescriptions.

Books Used for this Essay
Ashbery, John, Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987, New York, Library of America, 2008.

James, William, The Principles of Psychology, Volume One, New York, Dover Publications, 1950.

James, William, A Pluralistic Universe, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Rorty, Richard, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers Volume 2, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Chrisotpher Voparil and Richard Bernstein (ed.), The Rorty Reader, Malden, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2010.

Introduction: Why the Lyric Essay?

1.


I want to start with a problem: an overwhelming, close to paralyzing sense that an essay about John Ashbery’s poetry is like a representational critique of a cubist painting. The two (essay and poetry) just feel ill-fitting, strange bedfellows, as though a parent (the essayist), out of the desire to understand her son (the poet), gave him a lesson in thermodynamics. Ashbery can be theromodynamically complex, yet such a lesson would seem to miss the point, not to mention the fun. New forms of interpretation are needed to come close to an approximation to what Ashbery is doing.

2.

So how do we approach him?

One day I made a list of various things that go into an Ashbery poem. I’d just read Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion,” and, inspired, I decided to use his form, namely the “out of” incantatory rhythm, and apply it to what an Ashbery poem, in my mind, might be made out of. Here is a sampling:

  1. ambivalence
  2. wonder
  3. ideas stretched like mattresses
  4. language
  5. feelings too simple and complex at once
  6. narrative
  7. sight
  8. unsystematic thinking
  9. the bowels of the straining imagination
  10. the window where the morning does something just grand enough for a verb
  11. thoughts that ricochet around the laundry room
  12. sweeping symphony-like waves
  13. mud
  14. tissue boxes
  15. cardboard tents
  16. old political buttons
  17. aunt’s recipes scrawled in chicken-scratch on yellowing note cards
  18. domestic arrangements
  19. picture-frames
  20. pictures of loved ones doing random silly things
  21. pillowcases
  22. soap
  23. the noise the cat makes when it covers its litter
  24. cats and their following eyes
  25. fake plants
  26. trees
  27. ocean
  28. sea-rocks
  29. the distant realm of the voice that swoops down out of sheer necessity to splatter the page with its urgings

But this seemed to defeat my purpose. I should begin at the beginning: Why was the lyric essay my answer to the problem of writing an essay about Ashbery?

3.

A heightened attention to form and content seems to echo, among other poems, in some regards Ashbery’s longer work – I’m thinking of Flow Chart, or Three Poems, the sense of an unspooling thought following its own unwindings, but arguing for something, implicit or explicit, perhaps a way of being, perhaps a style, or maybe a space in the world for such a way-of-being/style to exist. A lyric essay does something similar: poetic and rhetorical, it gives the writer a freedom than the more conventional essay does not, a freedom that hopefully comes close to the Ashberian exuberance exhibited in poem like “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” or, better yet, “The Skaters.” The lyric essay, though argumentative, is more therapeutic, meaning it is more interested in providing helpful frameworks for thought than sending home an immaculate argument. Its intention is to “redescribe,” a la Richard Rorty – to speak differently, believing that “large-scale change of belief is indistinguishable from large-scale change of the meaning of one’s words.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 215) Indeed, this lyric essay has an ambitious goal: it posits that words placed in a lyric essay mean differently, work differently, and that this change in meaning is inextricably linked to changes in belief: the belief, say, that poems are best explicated by more formal essays, as opposed to other poems, or lyric essays; the belief that more conventional essays are mirrors reflecting the reality of the poem, as opposed to Lego-blocks, creating, blue block by red block, word by word, new interpretations, new angles, new ways of looking, which cannot happen separately from the form of the assay. The goal of the lyric essay, then, is to change writer and reader’s self-image, however slightly, “to insure that the moral consciousness of each generation is slightly different from that of the previous generation.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 304)

Part 1: Ashbery and the Rortian Self-Image

1.

It has long been my contention, or suspicion, or just unverified hunch, that John Ashbery (like Gertrude Stein) has had some relation to William James and American pragmatism. Ashbery’s reluctance to make any statement or declaration that does not appear to arrive and disappear on the heels of his miraculous syntax seems to me evidence of the kind of conceptual relativity that James first enunciated in the early years of the twentieth century. Ashbery’s joyous investment in a present reality as being inimical to what James called “copying” is further evidence: Ashberian poetics insists on the multidimensionality of time-space duration, as opposed to either pictorial mimesis or the cause-and-effect order of conventional, developmental narration: reality, for Ashbery, has neither linearity nor replica. Connections among thinking and feeling, knowing and doing are always in flux. – Ann Lauterbach, Conjunctions: 49

Lauterbach is making a wonderfully interesting claim: that Ashbery is doing something similar to what philosophers do – and, more specifically, what pragmatist philosophers such as William James do. (What do they do?) Notice that Lauterbach is very careful in her phrasing: Ashbery “has had some relation to William James and American pragmatism”; his reticence, his self-deconstructing poetics, are each “evidence of the kind of conceptual relativity that James first enunciated in the twentieth century.” These are powerfully intriguing statements, and they are intriguing because they are vague. James himself would approve of this vagueness, who wrote in the first chapter of his monumental Principles of Psychology that,

It is better not to be pedantic, but to let the science be as vague as its subject […] we gain much more by a broad than by a narrow conception of our subject […] At a certain stage in the development of every science a degree of vagueness is what best consists with fertility. (James, 6)

Owing to the fact that our science here is literary criticism, which seems at best highly chimerical and dependent in some regard upon academic fads; and owing to the fact that our subject is John Ashbery’s poetry, an art form so florabundantly fertile as to deliberately court the benefits of suggestiveness, (if not the dangers of nebulousness), it seems best, following James and Lauterbach’s example, to proceed cautiously (but boldly) in our discussion of the affinities between Ashbery as poet and Ashbery as pragmatist philosopher. A pregnant vagueness is what we are after, as opposed to an insipid one.

2.

Pregnant vagueness defined in Ashbery’s “Clepsydra”:

A moment that gave not only itself, but
Also the means of keeping it, of not turning to dust
Or gestures somewhere up ahead
But of becoming complicated like the torrent
In new dark passages, tears and laughter which
Are a sign of life (Ashbery, 143)

3.

So what do pragmatist philosophers do?

Rorty, pragmatist par excellence, defines “philosophizing” as “[raising] questions about questions,” especially questions about “unexpressed assumptions” and “presuppositions.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 15) Voparil, quoting Rorty, points out that this activity of philosophizing “implies the primacy of ‘imaginative vision’”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 15) So, a-ha (we want to say)! Philosophizing, or the raising of questions about questions – what we normally associate with philosophy – entails the importance of imaginative vision – what we normally associate with the driving force behind poetry! Here we might imagine William James and John Ashbery clasping hands. But what is the relationship, more specifically, between raising questions about questions and imaginative vision?

4.

Suffice it to say here…that imaginative vision might be described as a way of thinking outside the box, and therefore as its own idiosyncratic form of metaphilosophy…? Meaning that to reflect upon the old way of thinking, we have to first move out and away from that old way of thinking. Here’s a metaphilosophy as defined by Ashbery in “Clepsydra”:

Each moment
Of utterance is the true one; likewise none are true,
Only is the bounding from air to air, a serpentine
Gesture which hides the truth behind a congruent
Message, the way air hides the sky, is, in fact,
Tearing it limb from limb this very moment: (Ashbery, 140)

5.

And what is the goal of philosophizing, as defined by Rorty? Voparil goes on to write, again quoting Rorty,

The aims of edifying philosophy involve helping not only readers of philosophy but ‘society as a whole,’ to ‘break free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes, rather than to provide ‘grounding’ for the intuitions and customs of the present’”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 21-22)

Such a “[breaking] free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes” is valuable, because such edifying discourse will “take us out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 22) A very compelling sentence; but what does it mean, and how is it related to Ashberian poetics?

6.

Analogy. Do you remember as a teen wanting an article of clothing so badly, that you begged your parents for it – and for whatever reason, they decided not to buy it for you? I remember, as a pre-teen, desiring desperately a Corliss Williamson basketball jersey – red and white, with the word “Arkansas” at its center. The question is, why was I so obsessed with wearing that jersey? What is it that clothes represent that gets our desire-juices flowing? And what does this mundane example have to do with the seemingly extra-mundane notion of “[taking] us out of our old selves by the power of imagination, to aid us in becoming new beings”?

Another way to ask the question: Have you ever, after knowing a person for a good while, seen them in a different context, and the context changed the way you thought about them? Maybe you see your father interacting with an old friend you’d never met. Or you see a girlfriend interacting with her grandparents. Perhaps you see an old friend wearing a shirt you’d never imagine her wearing. And suddenly you’re feeling like you don’t know this person,

and you think to yourself, half-delighted, half-bewildered, “Oh my god, I never realized they had this side to them!”

This is what Voparil and Rorty are referring to, in regard to the goal of philosophizing, and what Ashbery enacts in his poeticizing: it’s the process by which we “change our clothes,” literally and metaphorically, to try on something new, for in so doing we are in effect trying on new identities, new self-images, imagining in the process the people we wish to become. We do this every time we start a new job, or try something new at our old job; every time we don a different haircut, or read a different poem, or wear a different style of t-shirt.

This – the changing of one’s self-image – is the GREAT THEME of Ashbery’s poetry.

7.

Rorty describes this theme in terms of Freud and Hegel, although we might as well substitute “Ashbery”:

Freud, in particular, has no contribution to make to social theory. His domain is the portion of morality that cannot be identified with “culture”: it is the private life, the search for a character, the attempt of individuals to be reconciled with themselves (and, in the case of some exceptional individuals, to make their lives works of art).

Such an attempt can take one of two antithetical forms: a search for purity or a search for self-enlargement. The ascetic life commended by Plato and criticized by Nietzsche is the paradigm of the former. The “aesthetic” life criticized by Kierkegaard is the paradigm of the latter. The desire to purify oneself is the desire to slim down, to peel away everything that is accidental, to will one thing, to intensify, to become a simpler and more transparent being. The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning, to give oneself over entirely to curiosity, to end by having envisaged all the possibilities of the past and of the future. It was the goal shared by, for example, de Sade, Byron, and Hegel. On the view I am presenting, Freud is an apostle of this aesthetic life, the life of unending curiosity, the life that seeks to extend its own bounds rather than to find its center.

For those who decline the options offered by de Sade and Byron (sexual experimentation, political engagement), the principle technique of self-enlargement will be Hegel’s: the enrichment of language. One will see the history of both the race and oneself as the development of richer, fuller ways of formulating one’s desires and hopes, and thus making those desires and hopes themselves – and thereby oneself – richer and fuller.

8.

Here’s Ashbery writing at the close of “Clepsydra.” I’m choosing this passage, because 1. it is itself about self-image – (passages about self-image in Ashbery, as I’m suggesting, are legion); and 2. when I read the passage, I myself feel changed, feel as if Ashbery is articulating something I’d always felt but never heard articulated, something so innate as to be almost unconscious and habitual: the workings of the imagination (read: self-image) itself, talking about itself:

What is meant is that this distant
Image of you, the way you really are, is the test
Of how you see yourself, and regardless of whether or not
You hesitate, it may be assumed that you have won, that this
Wooden and external representation
Returns the full echo of what you meant
With nothing left over, from that circumference now alight
With ex-possibilities become present fact, and you
Must wear them like clothing, moving in the shadow of
Your single and twin existence, waking in intact
Appreciation of it, while morning is still and before the body
Is changed by the faces of evening. (Ashbery, 146)

This absolutely remarkable passage is not only about the imaginative process by which we imagine ourselves into the people we wish to become – it seems itself to somehow enact or re-enact that process in its own formulation. It’s as if Ashbery, in discussing his own experience of growth and becoming, helps us to experience it within ourselves as well. It is a powerfully poetic way of telling us to trust our hopes, by calling attention to the way in which those feathered things are inextricable from our desired self-image. We have a “single and twin existence” because we are constantly setting out (“twin existence”) from where we just recently started from (single existence) – (The Mooring of Starting Out is what Ashbery titled the collection of his first five books of poetry). We are constantly twinning ourselves, imagining ourselves into the people we hope to “really be.”

This is why William James wrote in A Pluralistic Universe that “a man’s vision is the great fact about him.” (James, 20) “Vision” can be thought of synonymously here with personal imagination. James, like Ashbery and Rorty, is saying, modestly but confidently, that who we presently are is a quiet achievement, that growth is just as much an active process as it is a passive one. And Ashbery is one of our greatest chroniclers of this process by which we alter, gradually or suddenly, our self-image.

Books Used for this Essay
Ashbery, John, Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987, New York, Library of America, 2008.

James, William, The Principles of Psychology, Volume One, New York, Dover Publications, 1950.

James, William, A Pluralistic Universe, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Rorty, Richard, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers Volume 2, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Chrisotpher Voparil and Richard Bernstein (ed.), The Rorty Reader, Malden, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2010.

Aristotle defines phronesis in the following manner:

We may grasp the nature of prudence [phronesis] if we consider what sort of people we call prudent. Well, it is thought to be the mark of a prudent man to be able to deliberate rightly about what is good and advantageous . . . But nobody deliberates about things that are invariable . . . So . . . prudence cannot be science [episteme] or art [techne]; not science because what can be done is a variable (it may be done in different ways, or not done at all), and not art because action and production are generically different. For production aims at an end other than itself; but this is impossible in the case of action, because the end is merely doing well. What remains, then, is that it is a true state, reasoned, and capable of action with regard to things that are good or bad for man . . . We consider that this quality belongs to those who understand the management of households or states.

Phronesis is the other side of the beautiful conveyed in aesthetics (which means the beautiful and the good); it is that which is prudent, which makes art a living framework for living, “equipment for living” as Kenneth Burke phrased it. The word brought down into early Roman virtue is prudentia (prudence); someone recently called me their “prudent” friend, a charge I have never before received and am likely never to receive again.

Prudence, as Aristotle defines it, is neither the arts nor sciences, but the ability to conduct one’s self, and the business of the state wisely. In a sense, it is praxis as art is poesis and science (theoria). Aristotle separates these into categories, but the question that perhaps belongs most to phronesis is: how do we put into practice theoria and poesis? What is the responsible and living, active principle of either in our lives? When someone poopoos the arts as so much silliness or disparages science that does not have immediate practical application, are they acting out of phronesis, true praxis, or are they merely insisting on an absolute succession to praxis with theoria being too esoteric, and poesis being too inconsequential for consideration?

This is an important question for the Redux movement I belong to: redux, by using the broken and thrown away, by seeing beauty and ugliness as part of the same category of the grotesque as Averroes (A follower of Aristotle) did, risks pleasing neither those in science, the arts, or the polis, since what Redux wishes to introduce is a fourth category, or rather an appendage to the preceding three: theoria, praxis, poesis, and the posibility, the perhaps of deviation, digression, brokeness, incongruity, what might be called the comic misstep that becomes a dance. Redux is interested in the possibility that remains when things do not go as expected, as planned or as one wills. We are interested in anomaly, in what scientists insist is mere white noise, and what artists would consider mistakes. We are interested in seeing the universe as a series of pratfalls into grace, and so are loathe to believe in the following:

- Standards: not because we think art is subjective, but because we believe mistakes, sub-standards, and deviations may contain amazing power and value.

- Materials: we have two ways of thwarting such seemingly airtight aphorisms as “the medium is the message.” One is the “perspective by incongruity” as Kenneth Burke framed it (and which we “misuse” in so far as we extend it to matters of the spirit, and live in such seeming oxymoronic realms as “holy impiety” and “obedience as systemic deconstruction”). The second is the “Bethlehem principle”, which states that nothing ever grows from where it is expected, but happens in a “Bethlehem” that is inevitable “after the fact.” A preceding “after the fact” engages all aesthetics–the mistake that becomes the standard. For this reason, we consider all materials to be usable, possible, and appropriate, and seek to disengage from the consumer nexus of semiotic congruity and categorical tagging.

- Purity: Purity is impossible save in God or some concept which would approach God insofar as it is ultimate ground and source of all being. Redux advocates an ongoing and humble practice of impurity–what William’s called “by defective means.” We do not trust the pure, though we also do not trust the idea that there can be no absolutes. We believe there is an absolute which, the moment it is touched, approached, named, or pointed toward breaks into a million pieces and is “bedraggled.” We seek the bedraggled, we seek the Bethlehem. We seek the comedy of failures and success as being both equally beside the point. And so we are loathe to embrace Standards, materials, or purity in any conventional sense, believing the embrace of these leads to the very opposite of their intents: not virtue, but the arbitrary power and imposition of standards, materials, and purity in such a way as to create evil which we see as intentional thwarting of the good via envy, territorial desire, and the maintaining of power and privilege as “sacre” (ground set apart).

We call the appendage to theoria, praxis and poesis: Eucharist. Redux believes in eucharist. Eucharistic reality is that which can embrace the broken, the impure, the impious, the mistake, and also beauty virtue, rightness, within the framework of “living bread.” We believe that theoria, praxis, and poesis are worthless without eucharist, that they are indeed, all three truly activated only when they have received eucharistic energy–living bread. The dynamic of spirit, the receiving of spirit as that arbitrary power which goes where it wll, which plumbs even the depths of ultimate groundings without ever being “Subject” but, rather co-equal to those groundings is the agent, transfer, and mode of action in eucharist. Redux then seeks out and celebrates this dynamic in eucharist. We see eucharist as the tendon, and sinew of theoria, praxis and poesis, and we make provision for defective means– something which theoria, praxis, and poesis can never, in and of themselves, make provision for. This is the theoria, if you will, of redux.

As for its praxis, all that which is motley, a sincere bringing together of often incongruent dynamics: poetry readings that are aspects of high vaudeville, art exhibits that use any material at hand, most often that which has been thrown away, what might be called garbage art–graffiti as very much a vital eucharistic mode of artistic action as the “gesture,” the scribble, the sheer dynamic of improvised structures. Art as ritual, as ceremony, as an invocation of presence, and not the presence of the gate keepers, but of those who would open the gates: a free for all, but not without terminus, for Redux believes that true obedience to “No standards at all” will invariably lead to true value–that beyond standards, that beneath-which-not which is organic to human apprehension of the beautiful and the good.

We will define eucharistia as all that is truly bread in the dynamic of theoria, praxis and poesis, and yet is not subject to the “perfection” of these categories, but which lives in the free dynamic and interplay– and in the Bethlehem we can not apprehend save through prophetic vision– that which is right and inevitable only “after the fact.” This Bethlehem principle does not challenge or disparage Jerusalem, but merely knows that Eucharistia can not, by its very nature, favor Jerusalem–the agreed upon ideal–for then it would be subject to the law of standards, and Eucharistia is subject to no law. For this reason, as readily as it takes a broken piece of wood and draws upon it, it is just as likely to turn and write a sonnet. Eucharistia is that force which seeks to complete what is lacking in theoria, praxis and poesis at any one moment in space/time: sometimes, order and sometimes disorder. It is purposeful to the extent that it is a living bread, an aesthetic that privileges the energy of exuberance over all other energies, and so, to the degree that hiptserism is about cool and detached appreciation, Redux is antithetical to the elan of hipsterism (while not necessarily rejecting it outright). Redux sees beauty and ugliness as being joined as energetic principles of eucharistia–the dynamic of living bread.

In Eucharistia, not the immoral or amoral, but the pre-moral that leads to the beautiful and the good.

In Eucharistia, not the imperfect, or the perfect, but the dynamic between them

In Eucharistia, not action or motion, but percipient action and love of force and energy within the realm of perhaps.

In Eucharistia, not peace without violence, but a merge point that claims the ferocity of peace, and the calm at the center of flux.

In Eucharistia: the broken brought home to its magisterial rites within the living bread: love of the poor, love of vital energy, love of the being born into agon (birth pain), love of struggle, ongoing appraisal and protest against one’s own comfort zones, the daily, hourly practice of being ready for the spirit to annihilate one into being. Reinstituting of inspiration and afflatus over the factory model of excellence based on “Standards.” Whim as a form of virtue, constancy as grace.

We can enter a poem in an almost limitless number of ways–through its imagery, its social underpinnings, its meaning, its rhythms, its sentence structure, its line breaks, etc, etc. An arbitrary grid works like this: given these different ways of entering a poem, we can choose what we might want to steal from a poem: its line breaks, syllable structure, sentence structure, and use it to our own ends. This isn’t so much plagiarism as reclamation. We ransack the poem. We see it as a thing that has crashed down into our lives, as a whale washed up along our shore. We may as well use it since it is there.

Basically, an arbitrary grid is a way of using our reading for the purposes of writing.

Let’s take a poem from one of my former students: Brian Trimboli. One of the first things you might notice about Brian’s poetry is the kid likes metaphors. He also loves to personify abstractions and have them doing things. Hence the opening of his poem, “Apology”:

Dear reader, this poem has not yet been written.
I have been caught on the sticky tip
of amnesia’s swelled tongue.
I loaded my thoughts like shot gun shells
and fired them up at the sky.

Young poets tend to like being virtuosos. They have just developed their wings and want to do tricks. And Brian is doing a lot of good tricks here. The grid we might impose on the opening: direct address to the reader, followed by blunt statement of obvious lie (“this poem has not yet been written”). Followed by the personification of amnesia (giving it a sticky tongue–which is the ghost of oxymoron since amnesia is usually about things that don’t stick) followed by an abstraction (thoughts) being loaded into a gun and fired at the sky: To whit: Salutation, blunt statement (Seemingly impossible) personification, simile/personification:

Dear Lucy, I am having fun living without you.
I have been cradled in the
arms of somnambulance.
I have kneaded the bread of bitterness,
until it rises with the leaven of my spite.

Basically, I am copping Brian’s chord changes, but playing my own tune (A far more inferior tune, but I’m just doing this as an example). My “poem” is more about personal invective. It will focus not on a general reader, but on Lucy.

It may be more or less absurd. I might even send up one of the literary devices so that I am mocking the device even as I employ it. This is the strategy of imposing an arbitrary grid: in this case I will slavishly imitate whatever literary devices Brian is employing, maybe even his sentence structure, but the poem will be utterly different. After I’ve written it, I will decide which parts of the schema don’t work and edit them or change them accordingly.

This is one, utterly different way of getting your reading of poetry to function in your writing of it. You could take one poem and get twenty poems out of it, all depending on how you enter the text. My favorite arbitrary grid is the syllaby. Here, in a syllaby, you don’t imitate anything except the exact syllable and line structure of another poem. I did this with Frank O’Hara’s to “The Harbor Master”, Stevens’ “Large Red Man Reading”, and Williams’ “Franklin Street”. I published two of the poems. Try it. Enter a poem through its vowels, its consonants, its syllables, its line breaks, its stanzas, etc. Have fun.

Naked Except for the Jewelry

“And,” she said, “you must talk no more
about ecstasy.  It is a loneliness.”
The woman wandered about picking up
her shoes and silks. “You said you loved me,”
the man said. “We tell lies,” she said,
brushing her wonderful hair, naked except
for the jewelry. “We try to believe.”
“You were helpless with joy,” he said,
“moaning and weeping.” “In the dream,” she said,
“we pretend to ourselves that we are touching.
The heart lies to itself because it must.”

From Refusing Heaven

Prior to a random visit to the local library, I had never heard of Jack Gilbert. Though I make it a point to browse the new releases in contemporary poetry, it is a rare occurrence when a poet hooks into my psyche and refuses to let go.  Jack Gilbert is one of those poets.  Others include Robert Hass, Allen Ginsberg, and Ezra Pound. Every poet worth her stipend understands the importance of voice. Though I was coming from a position of complete ignorance concerning his biography and his aesthetic philosophy, Gilbert’s voice latched into my mind like a Chinese finger trap, burrowing into me with its combination of controlled diction, intellectual engagement, and erotic content.

To those just tuning in, Naked Except for the Jewelry captures a random snippet of post-coital dialogue.  The woman is “brushing her wonderful hair” while the male participant is probably looking around for his pack of American Spirit cigarettes.  (The cancer sticks preferred by socially conscious lefties everywhere, since nothing is antithetical to the aims of Big Tobacco than a schlocky graphic of Native American headgear.)

Back to the poem.  With Fifty Shades of Grey flying off the bookshelves and into the Kindles of discerning philistines everywhere, I would be remiss to avoid the actual eroticism of this brief poem.  One of its beauties is its effortless interplay between the erotic and the intellectual. At an abstract level, the couple talks about ecstasy, love, joy, and truth.  At the fleshly level, one need only look at the title. It is a powerful image, reminiscent of Isabella Rossellini’s performance in Death Becomes Her, the minor film by Robert Zemeckis.  In a scene that has stuck with me to this day, Mrs. David Lynch comes out of a massive swimming pool clad in nothing but a blocky necklace covering her bosoms.  (Rossellini is the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini and possesses a sculptural beauty and haute elegance unrivaled in modern Hollywood actresses.  Catherine Zeta-Jones comes close, but Rossellini’s beauty is Garbo-esque.)

The female nakedness implies an almost clichéd thrust towards the notion of authenticity.  To be nude is to be unadorned, stripped of the divisive symbols of civilization.  Except that she wears jewelry, symbolic of wealth and beauty, itself a concept that excludes.

The poem acts as a succinct counterargument to the hothouse sensuality of The Song of Songs.  Instead of ecstasy uniting two individuals, it is “a loneliness.”  Despite advances in technology and the advances of feminism and male sensitivity, the “ecstasy” remains an individual experience.  The term “ecstasy” is also curious, since it implies a biological orgasm, but also calls back the sensual mysticism of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.  (Is the body really a vessel of evil and corruption when the best we can hope for in the sacred realm is Joel Osteen telling us Jesus wants us all to get rich?  That seems rather crass, not to mention shortsighted and rather vulgar, as if Christ’s only concerns were the capital gains tax.)

The debate continues with the man asserting the woman was “helpless with joy … moaning and weeping.”  But, she retorts, “We pretend to ourselves that we are touching. / The heart lies to itself because it must.”

The man asserts an analytical assessment of the situation: since she was moaning and weeping, she must have been in ecstasy.  Job well done.  All very scientific and quantifiable – shades of Blake’s dictatorial Urizen – while the woman undercuts his single-vision rationality.  Yes, she did those things, but in the end, “we pretend to ourselves that we are touching.”  One would be exceptionally naïve to allege we only think about one’s partner when one does the deed.  While the flesh and voice respond to the stimuli, the woman understands the situation.  In the giant spy novel Harlot’s Ghost, Norman Mailer writes about a hapless adulterous protagonist on his way to his mistress, a character who (to paraphrase)  thinks of monogamy as “orgies unimagined.”  In other words, even within the sacred confines of heterosexual monogamy – the bulwark of Western Christian civilization to the carnally deranged minions of the conservative Right – the mind finds other things (people, combinations, situations, and roles) of which to think.  To assume otherwise is simply dishonest.

In the end, “The heart lies to itself because it must.”  A certain degree of dishonesty is part and parcel of any functioning relationship.  Not everyone can be that sexually honest with their partner, and confessing infidelities of the Imagination comes awfully close to Orwellian thoughtcrime, especially given the reflexive omnipresence and inventive nature of the human libido.  (Real infidelities are a different matter.)  But these imaginative infidelities do not undercut the genuine faithfulness of those involved, at least in the general sense.  The poem leaves things a little more open-ended, since we don’t know the precise nature of this assignation.  Gilbert calls her “the woman” but we aren’t sure if this is just poetic license or a transcription of an actual infidelity.  And even with Gilbert’s Ivy League pedigree, the conversation seems a bit arch and contrived, even by the standards of adulterous East Coast academics.  But the poem is more about what is said than who is saying it.

Love, lust, and lying remain the central undercurrents of the poem, infusing it with a profundity and delicious eroticism.  While the title sounds like a random line from a Natalie Imbruglia song – “Something something something / lying naked on the floor” – the poem itself contains a beautiful rumination on the nature of bodily lusts and emotional honesty.  Within his oeuvre, Gilbert revisits these common themes, exploring the labyrinths of desire, truth, and grace, but with a poetic power that undercuts my rather pretentious explanations.  His intellectually sensual poem gives the reader a moment respite from the loneliness of existence, tearing back the veil of lies we tell ourselves, and doing it in a remarkably brief way that shoots across the page with the brilliance of a comet.

After writing a poem (never during or before the poem), ask yourself these questions:

1. Why is my lineation the way it is and is that the right shape for the poem?

2. Are my images predictable? Do shadows fall? Do I express myself in idioms and cliches rather than in a true voice. Most often the idioms we employ without thinking are old metaphors/personification/figurative parts of speech we have forgotten are metaphors, personification and figures: shadows fall, winds moan, daylight breaks, thoughts leap, ideas “turn” in the mind. How do I edit these from my poem and either leave them out or find a less familiar or predictable way of saying them? If I am aware of them as idioms, how do I have fun with them and let the reader know I am aware of them as such?

3. Am I over-determining the reader’s experience of the poem through
A. Overt insistence upon its meanings?
B. Lack of balance between image and rhythm (or absolutely no relation between them)?
C. Tagging the poem as belonging too fully to one school of poetry or another?

4. Does my poem veer off it’s track and head in directions I did not intend, and are these directions something I should follow or edit?

5. Are my end stopped and enjambed lines purposeful? Do I tend not to vary them enough, and are the terminal words of my lines often muffled or without strength?

6. What is my poem saying at the sub-meaning level: through syllables, through sonics, through word choice, through the neutral, laudatory, or dyslogistic registers of speech that might either contradict, undermine, or confuse the overall effect?

7. Do I force a line to stay because I like it–even if it does not match up with the other lines and is destroying the overall effect of the poem?

These are questions I tell my students to ask during the revision process. I also advise “retakes” in addition to revisions. A retake works as follows:

1. If the poem was written in a skinny line, you try it in a long line.

2. If the poem is written in verse paragraphs or irregular (Aleostrophic) stanzas, try restructuring it in tercets or couplets, or some other regular and consistent stanza pattern–just for the hell of it.

3. If the poem uses imagery congruent with mood (grey sky and dead leaves for grief), change that aspect completely and re-write it so that the loss is incongruent with the weather. “My husband is dead. Outside, relentlessly sunny L.A. bleats on.” Play with expectation. Write the poem in second person. Take out all but two lines and rewrite it with those lines being the only parts left. And on and on.

It is good to let students know why poets use skinny, or medium sized, or long lines. For example, the skinny line is used when

A. The poet does not like sentences that are end stopped or wishes to play sentence off against incremental fragments to create grammatical ambiguity (amipholy) so that a whole poem might be only one or two sentences, or only sentence fragments.

B. When the poet wants a single effect, and does not want any one line to draw attention to itself (Donald Justice in “Bus Stop,” Williams in “Locust Tree in Flower,” etc. etc).

C. When a poet wishes to be pithy, aphoristic, economical (Jabez book of questions, mottos, epitaphs, epigrams)

D. When a poet has read other poets who write skinny poems and is imitating them without knowing why exactly.

E. To make each word or a few words isolated by the white space and create a certain feeling for the poem as an object.

F. To slow down the reader by making him or her consider each isolated word, or to make the poem read like a quick antidote:

It’s a strange courage
you give me
Ancient star.

Shine alone
in the sunrise
towards which
you lend no part.

This could be expressed in prose as:

it’s a strange courage you give me ancient star; shine alone in the sunrise towards which you lend no part.

But, being expressed this way, it loses its effect of ceremony and becomes mere statement.

G. All of the above.

As for the medium line,

A. The poet might be writing a free verse line that contains a rhythmic ghost of blank verse and stays between eight and fourteen syllables (most of Jane Kenyon).

B. The poet wishes to practice aesthetic modesty, and not draw attention to his or her line, but to take a middle road, and let other aspects of the poem matter.

C. The poet wishes to give the effect of being sane, and steady, and somewhat measured.

D. The poet likes symmetry and does not wish to be out of balance.

E. The enjambments exist but are kept in control by being more or less of even length–not too long or too short.

F. Line is not one of the chief considerations of the poet at that moment.

G. All of the above.

Reasons for a long line:

A. To convey a sense of speechifying, oratorical address, or majesty. Often found heavy with anaphora, listing, enumerating (as in Whitman, Ginsberg)

B. Poet wishes to be mock-epic, and to tweak or make comedic use out of the epic length of the line– to speak of small insignificant things in “monumental” ways.

C. The poet wishes to give the reader a sense of expansiveness.

D. All of the above, depending on the situation.

Reasons for a line of varying length (undulating lineation):

A. The poet is a novice and does not know the importance of line length.

B. The poet is moving with his thoughts which vary in length and the shape of thought, its pattern is varied.

C. The poet is playing with line against sentence structure.

D. The poet wishes not to enjamb and so end stops each line no matter how much the line lengths vary.

E. All of the above.

I give examples of each, and then I discuss how a poet might get trapped by being known for a certain type of line (skinny equals Creeley, Long equals Whitman or CK Williams, medium equals many poets out of MFA programs, and on and on). In this case, the formal requirements of line are imposed and may or may not fit the needs of the poem at hand. They may also determine what sort of poem that poet writes and lead him to live only in his comfort zones. I suggest that the student take a measured poem by Jane Kenyon and write it out in different ways to see if it changes the effect. This is a way of making the student more conscious of his or her own aesthetics. I tell them some teachers just impose line length or type of line without being open to exception. They are not teachers; they are propagandists, and most poetry programs have a shared or implied poetic vision that narrows what can or can’t be done there. Thank God poetry is not as narrow as its experts.

Neutral, dyslogistic, and laudatory registers of speech:

Using Bentham’s tri-partite registers, we can look at a poem as inhabiting different registers of speech. For example, someone who is above average in looks might be described in laudatory (a knockout) neutral (attractive) or dyslogistic (bimbo) terms, depending on the intentions and attitude of the speaker. Some registers will not even permit certain subject matter to exist (blazons are not too popular in circles where the objectification of the body is considered a sin, though the bible contains the most famous blazon of all). Others seal the poem in an attitude of disdain or gushing praise. Still others registers of speech, take on the white middle class voice of objective observation and cool detachment. This is when they are consistent, but often, new poems have lines that ring false to the rest of the poem, that contradict the overall tone. Mixed registers can be amazing if the writer knows what he or she is doing. Otherwise, they come off as mistakes, as a sudden slip in tone, or voice. I encourage students to become aware of their tone, their borrowed tones as well as those natural to their own train of thought (a train too often derailed by a student poet assuming a tone that is not organic to his or her own mentality and which they cannot properly parrot). I often have students learn idiomatic, overly familiar phrases and have fun with them:

Shadows Fell (Jennifer Townsend)

Shadows fell.
For the last three hours
they had been sucking down the bucolic scenery
like there was no tomorrow,
(and, for them, of course, there wasn’t).
Now they were stumbling,
tipping over the lawn furniture
making idiots of themselves,
touching the asses of men’s trophy wives,
and the wives’ trophy men,
fondling the party favors, kissing
until one lay down with the dog
and did not rise.

When night came, I found a sticky
substance on my hand.
I knew then that I was getting old
and must remodel my kitchen.
But how?
It’s the big questions that undo us.
The question took off my shirt
kissed my nipples
rubbed my crotch. Avocado, or Mauve?
Under the soft pressure of the question’s hand
I caved. Surrendered unto the shadows
who were still frolicking about,
running their tongues over
the wrought iron fence
and beyond.

To experiment more with these ideas, here are a few questions and prompts:
- What is the tone of this poem: mock serious, arch, whimsical?
- Which of the types of line does it match and why: short, long, medium, or undulating?
- Write a poem that uses overly familiar idioms in a literal or personified way. Have fun.
- Go over your poems and apply the questions I asked to your revision process.

I came by Oppen in 1979 via the wonderful–to my way of thinking–historically significant anthology, A Geography of Poets. I remember liking his poem, “Street” and memorizing it, then going no further. I was never one to devour poets (except Roethke, Williams, Stevens, and, weirdly, May Swenson). I preferred anthologies where, if the editor was wise, you would begin to hear the poems holding court and having a conversation with each other. I knew all the chestnuts by Frost, the major poems of Dylan Thomas, the typical schmeer of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Donne, Byron, Langston Hughes, Whitman, Dickinson, and so on and so forth, but I was never as interested in poets as in certain poems: “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” the Dickinson poem that begins “I dreaded that first robin so,” Dylan Thomas’ “The Boy’s of Summer” and so on. Roethke, Stevens, Williams, Yeats, and Swenson I devoured. Later in 1979, I would devour Robert Francis, and through him, return to Frost, but I was not, by nature or inclination, a fan. Williams pleased me because I saw in him the struggle, sometime hysterical, yet valiant struggle between being experimental and reconciling it with the banality of the local–a poet who was always in flux as he stayed put, who could not settle down and would do something striking and to my way of thinking, the one thing a great or significant poet must do: blaspheme against all good taste and the temptation to be competent at all times. He wasn’t afraid to fall on his ass. Stevens just knew how to sound definitive and to play with ideas the way others play with images: not as philosophy (you’ll find most of his ideas already in Pater and George Santayana) but as decor–an amazing feat no one has equaled.

But on to Oppen: I memorized “Street,” and would recite it to myself sometimes as I walked to my job as a night shift security guard at Elizabeth General hospital (now Trinitas). It was a rough neighborhood then and the poem settled me down, distracted me from hyepr- alert. I was never mugged or attacked, but once I stopped a man from beating his girlfriend (near the hospital), and something told me it wasn’t over. I called the cops, and they came and intercepted the guy just before he walked to my guard house station and blew my head off with a shotgun. If you don’t die you, fall half in love with the adrenaline rush of almost getting killed. At any rate, I walked two miles to work each night and saw the little girls who expected to be so good in Oppen’s poem. They were gangly, and wise-assed and in love with silent, brooding, beautiful boys who would probably either die before age 25 or live to grow fat and poor and sad on some broken down porch stoop. They would get the girls pregnant and not stick around, or come around occasionally. The economy would cut their balls off, and the girls would raise the kid or kids with their mother, and the cycle would repeat itself in all the languor and temporary rush of summer in places like Elizabeth, and Jersey City, and Paterson. So let me write out that Oppen poem before I get to the one I’m going to wrestle with:

Ah these are the poor,
These are the poor–
Bergen street.
Humiliation,
Hardship…
Nor are they very good to each other;
It is not that. I want
An end of poverty
As much as anyone
For the sake of intelligence,
“the conquest of existence”–
It has been said, and is true–
And this is real pain,
Moreover. It is terrible to see the children,
The righteous little girls;
So good, they expect to be so good…

One night at the hospital, after the infamous Elizabeth chemical fire, a little girl was brought in with 3rd degree burns over 80 percent of her body. She was in shock. She was talking. Third degree burns do not hurt until they begin to heal and then they are a pain so unimaginable that coma must be induced, and sometimes, even in a coma, the person whimpers in pain. She looked at me and my partner, Kenny and said: “Don’t worry, misters. I’ll be alright.” We must have looked–not horrified, but stunned out of all thought, all speech. Kenny instinctively reached for her hand, and her flesh sloughed off in his. We both cried. We were supposed to be tough enforcers of security. I was 20 or 21. Kenny was 18. Both of us had grown up in tough neighborhoods, but here was this kid who was obviously not going to make it, trying to console us. She died two days later. The chemicals were the compliments of crooked dumping deals between politicians and organized crime who, as we all know, love kids and give them free turkeys and fireworks every year (in addition to dumping chemicals that cause cancer in their neighborhoods and which burned this little girl to death). That morning I walked home reciting Oppen’s poem to myself, and I could not wear out the truth of it, or stop the overwhelming sense of grief and anger I felt, but also awe–awe at the child’s calm, her soft little voice, poor Kenny’s deep animal moan when her flesh sloughed off in his hand.

Oppen is a hero to many for various reasons: his integrity as poet (poetry defined by Oppen as “a rigorous test of sincerity”), his use of fragmentation, of the object and word as counterpoint, his stripped down line, his pre-minimalist economy, his politics, his courage, mostly–his freeing up of the line from the tyranny of the sentence–words as singular being, words allowed both to relate and to isolate, to be both a schema of meaning and a schema of thingness.

No one gives Oppen enough credit as a rhetorician for they believe he is the opposite of that, but being at the extreme other end, one might make a case for his poems being caught in the intimacy of opposing realms (what Holderlin spoke of). Many apply Heidegger to Oppen, especially insofar as one takes the statement “Poetry drinks at the waters of silence” seriously. I next encountered Oppen while monitoring a class by Mark Rudman called “Modern Poetry and How it Got there.” Rudman could be a bit of a snot ass, but he picked some interesting poets: Williams, Oppen, Lowell, Berryman, and Jabez. We spent the most time on the book of questions and “Of Mere Being.” Oppen was hot in 1992. Just 25 years before, although he had come back after a long exile and silence, he was excluded from such an otherwise general yet comprehensive primer on modern American poetry as Carruth’s The Voice That Is Great Within Us. But I am stalling. Let’s speak of Oppen as master of fractal rhetoric:

The People the People

For love we all go
To that mountain
of human flesh
which exists
And is incapable
of love and which we saw
In the image
Of a woman–we said once
She was beautiful for she was
Suffering
and beautiful. She was more ambitious
Than we knew
Of wealth
and more ruthless–speaking
Still in that image–we will never be free
Again from the knowledge
of that hatred
And that huge contempt. Will she not rot
Without us and die
In childbed leaving
Monstrous issue–

Oppen’s standard rhetorical operating procedure is fully at work in this poem: the use of amphiboly, the interruption of sentence flow, the haltingly and the not quite uttered statement, the fragment, modified variants of anacoluthean in which the dash works as if one began to say something then abruptly abandoned it to say something else (but it is more along the musical lines of a false cadence, which then “resolves” oddly enough, through its digressions). Like Creeley, Oppen is a master rhetorician of the nearly articulated–the “shifting said.” The best effects achieved by this technique is that the prison of the just so, the “that’s it” is avoided, yet one is left to wander about the provisional landscape of fragments, interruptions, odds and ends that may or may not be “it” at all. Such deliberate and rigorous refusal to adopt the traditional clarity of sentence and line integrity is something the Objectivists bequeathed to language poets. The authority of such a shifting articulation derives from the integrity with which it resists the florid, uses minimal forces to maximize ambiguity and suggestion. All poets that resist utterance in terms of definitive statement are “pure” rhetoricians. They are engaging utterance for its own sake, as if the speech had wandered off from the speaker and had begun living its own life. All the halts and stops and starts, the dash marks, the grammatical incongruity are the performed texts of a ghost rhetoric–a speechifying whose purpose is not persuasion so much as process. It is the process of utterance that provides the “rigorous” test of sincerity for Oppens poetics. Let’s look closer:

For love we all go
to that mountain
Of human flesh
Which is incapable
Of love and which we saw
In the image
Of a woman–

Note the reversal at the opening: not, “We all go for love”, but, ” For love, we all go. The only image is actually a rather hackneyed figure of speech: “mountain of human flesh.” Take it out and the poem would read: For love we all go to that which is incapable of love.” An aphorism, and more so, an opening rhetorical gambit, but I insist it is more “pure rhetoric” than functional rhetoric insofar as it borrows an opening gambit and then does not follow through (at least not directly). Oppens’ mission is not to persuade, but to perform the process of someone attempting to enter speech, the difficulty of entering fully into declaration, the constant re-entering, the false start, the The statement, and it is statement is cut off, and either the people or love is then personified as a woman who was beautiful and beautiful because she was “Sad and beautiful” This is a strange statement. Take out the word sad and it would read “she was beautiful because she was beautiful. Sad has a power of earnestness, I suppose, it allows beauty to pass the rigorous test of sincerity, but, lo and behold, this “Woman” turned out to like things and money much more than she let in–she was, in a sense lacking all sincerity. If she is the people, then Oppen is suggesting this abstraction is distorted and must be corrected, and seen for what it is: a lie, a thing which one turns to for love and which is incapable of love. Oppen is completely rhetorical, for all his tricks of fragmentation. He has embraced and mastered the rhetoric of process–the poem as a thing, a well made thing put together with fragments, with sometimes defective parts. If you look at these parts: mountain of flesh, the people as a deceiving woman…they ain’t exactly profound, but what gives the poem power and validity is the rhetorical performance of process–Oppen’s willingness to join, and attach, and hammer and nail, and, taking shards of shattered sense, make windows of high seriousness. Look at the ending, its grammatical ambiguity:

will she not rot
without us and die
in childbed leaving
monstrous issue–

And the silence of ending interrupts the verbal end, and where’s the question mark? Without, there’s far more possible meanings: it could be an imperative urging the reader to “Will she not rot without us.” Oppen calls for the reader to create the house for which he builds the scaffold. Into that scaffold, much can be made (and lost).

Poor Robert Creeley. In the 60s and 70s he was right up there with Robert Bly (though their styles are utterly different, their names are similar). The Robert he should have been paired with is Robert Francis, a great minor poet (minor in the best sense), who lived in the cool ominous, hawk’s wing shadow of Robert Frost.

But poor Robert Creeley is dead. I published him once, in Black Swan Review‘s Language poetry issue (Circa 1990). I met him once, at a reading celebrating urban poetry in Paterson–right near the falls. He was reading from William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. My job at the time was to serve the “immortals” sandwiches at the box lunch–me and five or six of my poetry friends. Me being me, I bitched and moaned about kissing these asshole’s asses all the way through. Joe Salerno being Joe Salerno, he was far more reflective and humble about the experience, even after Ginsberg insulted his loving parody of Howl which appeared in that particular issue of Black Swan.

I didn’t mind serving the “immortals” so much as having to endure their far less than famous hangers-on who treated me far worse than did the asses that were getting kissed. A local poet who I knew and who had managed to ingratiate himself with Ginsberg and Algarin, made me take back a soda twice. On the third trip I told him: “Listen mother fucker… I’m not getting paid for this job. I’m a volunteer. I know where you live. You keep this shit up, you act high and mighty with me just one more time, and I’ll shove this can up your ass, cut a coin slot in your fucking heart, and call you a Coke machine.” He shut up.

At any rate, Creeley was the most gracious person there. I was sick of famous poets (I have been sick of famous poets all my life) and did not approach him for fear that he would act, like, well, you know, famous. I never say anything intelligent to famous poets, and, to be honest, they don’t say anything terribly intelligent to me. I was already pissed off that Ginsberg had been less than nice to my friend Joe, and I still wanted to join the Khmer Rouge and execute everyone in the room who had ever published in a magazine with a circulation of more than three thousand. I was not happy. We had been told we would have a free box lunch with the poets (Robert Creeley, Algarin, C.K. Williams, Ginsberg, Baraka, Baca, and so on and so on). We were not told we would be serving lunch to the poets while those who didn’t volunteer for shit (our fellow New Jersey sycophants) would be sitting with them ordering us around as if we were incompetent waiters and they were CEOs. In retrospect, I have only myself to blame. If I had volunteered in a spirit of altruism, I’d have enjoyed watching Gerald Stern talk with tuna in his mouth, but alas, my motives had been elbow rubbing and I deserved any humiliation that ensued.

But back to Creeley! At my lowest point–when I was ready to give up poetry forever and thus deprive everyone of another nobody–Creeley, tall, lanky, and with an endearing comb over approached the table I was brooding at. He said, “Someone told me you’re Joe Weil.” I said, “Yes. I am him of whom you speak.” He said, “I just wanted to thank you for publishing one of my poems.” He extended his hand. We shook. I said, “Do you like the section in Paterson where there’s a drought and the river is dry and they have all these giant sturgeon?” He smiled and said, “Yes… I greatly enjoy the prose excerpts, especially in book One.” I said, “Me, too.” He said, Thanks again.” I said, “No problem.” He floated back to his immortality. I almost got Ginsberg to eat a corn chip when I drove him home from a reading in which I was the co-feature. I had a nice conversation with Louise Gluck about Robert Schuman. Jamie Santiago Baca wanted me to take him to a go go bar. Such is rubbing elbows. It’s really kind of sad and stupid, and it’s better never to meet anyone whose poetry you like.

Ah but poor Robert Creeley. Now that he’s dead, everyone says they don’t like his work. He’s known as the Black Mountain guy who wrote “skinny” poems. Poets over sixty still revere him. If I could make up a character, it would be an 80 year old professor with a long beard in a nursing home banging his cane briskly against the hardwood floor and shouting, “What this country needs is a good dose of Robert Creeley!”

Why don’t people like Creeley? First, he doesn’t tell a story. Second, he’s a white Harvard dude from New England. Third, he isn’t a language poet, but he ain’t a confessionalist, either. He’s a speculative writer. Unlike Stephen Dunn, he doesn’t offer wry wisdom in a masterly yet conversational tone. Many of his poems sound like bits of thought cut off at the stem. His skinny line was so imitated that it became a cliche. All his friends are dead or dying, and young American poets have a frame of reference no where near as good as what is on their iPods. In terms of poetry, their memory doesn’t surpass the life expectancy of a fruitfly.

I call Creeley a speculative poet because his playing around with the structure and syntax of a sentence, his devotion to the inarticulate, the almost said, or not quite said, is exactly that: provisional, based on what ifs. He is most definite and certain in his love poems, which are as good as the best love poems by Williams, Swenson, ee. Cummings, or, for that matter, Kenneth Patchen.

I bring him up because he was continuing the work of Williams–not in terms of the anti-poetic, but of the provisional, the poem as fragment, as “almost said/then not,” the defective, the bits of halted speech, a sort of mystical reticence which, to tin ears, seems non-existent, but is the gobbled and cobbled and ruined talk of the American male–the one who cannot speak, except too loudly and stupidly, if at all, and too little, too late if, like many “educated” American males, he hides in his office, drinking–removed from the very love in which he would partake.

Creeley was truly gracious. I’ve read his poetry, but not much on his life. Apparently, he fooled around with Rexroth’s wife, thus causing Rexroth to declare war on the beats (Kerouac was guilty by association). Other than that, I am sure he was a functional, highly intelligent, highly cultured drunk. He is our Celan. He is out of fashion right now because he is not super sized in any way. His is an intimate music. I would read him with a Thelonious Monk piano solo and a really good chicken salad sandwich. Stay away from the booze.

The great English literary critic, William Empson, wrote a work called 7 Types of Ambiguity in which he promoted Ambiguity as one of the chief indicators of great literary texts, most especially of modern literary texts. Most contemporary poets start to publish when they learn this sort of ambiguity–to not over determine the meaning of a text, to make it somewhat ambiguous. Ah, but there is a great difference between ambiguity and slightness of meaning, poverty of meaning, or out and out lack of it–though most post modern editors would rather have a meaningless poem with poetic turns of phrase, than a clear poem that didn’t sound “poetic”. This just goes to show idiots wait on both sides of the fence.

To be ambiguous means the meaning floats, hovers, resonates, is everywhere present and no where seen. To be confusing means that the poet can not convey either the mood, voice, or cognitive meaning at all, or that neither mood, voice or meaning exist. How much a reader needs in the way of determination varies wildly. A language poet snubs any meaning that isn’t either ironic, dadaist, or so denuded of emotional resonance and voice as to be fey, contingent, hardly there. They have political “reasons” for this–or used to, having to do with authority, but now that thousands of poems have been written as “language” poetry, it has developed its own all pervasive voice. In short, their non-inaugurated I is as much a rigid orthodoxy as that against which they reacted.

Narrative poetry is, by definition, over determined–it has a story to tell. Lyrical poetry is poetry doing its utmost to draw attention to itself as an act of language–heightened speech, the vatic I, the extremes of both ecstasy and precision. All these “kinds” of poetry have their thousand gradations and often bleed into each other, and are better off for being somewhat mongreled. Each of these, done badly, will not achieve the ambiguity Empson extols. Each of these, done supremely well, can achieve all seven types of ambiguity and then some.

At any rate, on countless occasions a student has handed me a poem that did not do what Pessoa claimed a poem must do: make a bridge between the “personal” and the “human.” The personal is all Pessoa defines as endemic only to that particular consciousness. The human is the rough translation of that consciousness into an act of language that is capable of being apprehended and understood by the other. Great poetry not only makes a bridge between the personal and the human, but makes this bridge tentative, almost invisible, so that the reader feels at times as if they are composing the poem out of their own consciousness. This is why language poetry can be faulted in its theory though I believe their goal is commendable): they never take into account to what degree the reader already shares in the authority of the poem, co-creates the inaugurated I of a poem, how a poem, especially one in which the author does not seek too much certainty, can be co-opted by a reader as his or her poem. In short, it isn’t necessary to be non-linear, multi-voiced, non-authoritative. It is only necessary that the author leave enough room in the poem for the reader to step in and co-create it. I once had a student give me a poem in which dogs were bleeding and stars fell onto the bodies of lepers, and a coffin rose from the grave, and opened to reveal a guitar. The student was highly surprised and upset that I didn’t know this was a poem about the death of his beloved father. I realized he’d done the opposite of what Pessoa had said: He’d taken a well known trope (The death of a father) and personalized it to such a degree that no one would ever know unless he told them. This is fine so long as you don’t care that no one gets it. but if you do care, then a little clarity helps.

I am going to share a pretty good poem then by one of my students in the 350 class a poem that uses ambiguity effectively. The poet’s name is Carrisa Ely. Watch what she does.

An Image

She will remember everything
but the color of his harley. She’ll
forget which one it was
in line with all the others; was it red
or was it blue or was it black?
She’s too distraught in
the swirls of his vanilla ice
cream on a cone, it is sugar, it is
sweet the way his tongue follows
the ridges, is caloused hands
turning it.
He does this softly.
Softer than the cracked leather
of his clothes, than the part of his face
around the mouth, softer than the pavement
they both stand on now, a part.

And in this light, he makes her
think again of delicate things– bathing in
claw foot tubs, long cigarettes– God and
the sound walking.

The very end might be a typo. It imght be sound of walking (This is how it was published in arc of a cry), but there is no mistaking the sensual, erotic, sexual charge of this poem, even though the only action is of a “she” watching someone whose bike she can’t remember eating a vanilla ice cream cone. Why do we think the vanilla might just be her? Why do we think, if it isn’t her, she wishes it were? How does she know his hands are calloused, or is this a girl thing– much as men like legs? Note the wonderful mis-use of the word distraught, so much better than caught here: “She’s too caught up… distraught means this action is having an effect on her that is exquisite both in the sense of pleasurable and accute to the point of painful. What we have here is licking, and soft, and leather, and claw foot bath tubs, and long cigarettes, sugar, sweet, etc, etc, etc, but nothing is spelled out except she won’t remember his harley and she will remember everything else. This is ambiguity working to create an erotic charge. In point of fact, all the best erotic poems beat around the bush so to speak. Suggestion is always far more erotic than coming straight at it. We could ask Clarissa Ely if she meant it to be erotic, and she might say not at all, and that would be fine, because a writer is not the only author of the work. After it has been written, there is a different author every time it is read. Someone who wasn’t getting the erotic charge might complain and say: This is vague writing. We don’t even know his or her name, and who cares about some biker eating an ice cream cone? This poem skirts the danger zone. Someone else, someone looking for the sexual in everything, might think this poem too obvious. In short, it can be argued over, and that’s a large part of why it is a poem and not greeting card verse. It is very hard to argue over a hall mark greeting card. A poem might be said to begin when the arguments begin, when it makes us define what we mean by both meaning and poetry. Good job Clarissa.

April 11th, 2012: I wake up at 5 am, inspired, and begin to scrawl some hasty haiku on the back of an envelope. It is rare that I am awake before my husband. It is still a kind of grayish-dark outside, and I am lonesome that I’m the only one awake, but also secretly luxuriating in this time alone, which is unlikely since I’m usually either teaching students or spending time with my husband. It’s peculiar: the house so tranquil and quiet, the world still dead with sleep. The haiku I’m writing are ambitious, a bit philosophical, perhaps a tad macrocosmic. I’m pleased with them. As I finish with the last one, the coffee-maker sputters to a halt, drips, and emits a breath of steam. I pour myself a cup of coffee.

I have had the nagging suspicion that I might be pregnant for days now; in fact I felt it the day after my husband I made love while I was certain that I was ovulating. It occurs to me that today would be the first day that a pregnancy test would show a positive result, if I had conceived. So I take one, sit down on the toilet lid, and wait three minutes. My husband is snoring faintly in the bedroom. He has no reason to wake up yet. In an hour I’ll have to leave the house and drive seventy minutes east to the colleges where I teach expository and creative writing to undergraduates.

Suddenly, two pink lines appear. Yup. Absolutely pregnant.

When I was in graduate school, a professor once casually stated, “Every baby you ever have is a novel unwritten.” Needless to say, it felt like a warning. It scared me to death. At the time, nearly everything in my life, no matter how momentous or insignificant was destined to be distilled into my daily writing. Writing was not only a passion, but also a necessary obsession. I felt the weight of time urging me to get as much writing done as I could in as few hours as possible. After all, I could die at any time; what would happen if what I really wanted to say most of all never got said? That was my logic for why I couldn’t spend any social time with anyone, why I seemed severely introverted and withdrawn, why cleaning and cooking were of ancillary importance, why the rent was never taken to the landlord on the day that it was due.

When I began seeing my husband, (the poet, Joe Weil), initially I was on a birth control shot called the “Depo.” It was easy to just have sex on a whim, not worry about ovulation, or the responsibilities that getting pregnant would entail. Joe and I were hotel whores. He always seemed to have a poetry gig somewhere in New Jersey, or Philly, and sometimes, we just felt like getting away to some city, seeing some museum, ducking into some unlikely restaurant where the food was French (or something of the sort) and the wine was plentiful. Afterward, we’d fall as easily into the hotel beds as autumn leaves. Things seemed inconsequential, both in terms of sex and of the future. But I had some vague idea.

Joe is Catholic, and eventually, he took me a few masses. We were married in October of 2010, civilly at town hall, with a couple of witnesses and a modest dinner afterward at a Japanese restaurant. But the masses intrigued me. Something felt familiar (although I had been raised Jewish), comfortable, and also reassuring. We didn’t attend on a regular basis, but I was certainly interested in the faith. By January of 2011, I had discontinued the birth control shot, but I was told that I wouldn’t begin menstruating again on a regular basis for at least a few months. By September of 2011, I had signed up to begin my conversion process to Catholicism. I began menstruating again that December, and thus was once again capable of baby-making. Since we were both Catholic, there was no reason not to be “open to life.”

I was surprised at first to see how easy it was to quit smoking and drinking. In the past, these two vices combined had been my primary musing devices. Before I would write a poem, it would be necessary for me to drink a couple glasses of wine, smoke a couple cigs, and get sufficiently delirious. This, I believed would allow the inspiration to flow more freely. It was just what I had become accustomed to doing. So the first concern I had once it had been determined that I was pregnant was how do I write without getting intoxicated and high?

It was difficult at first, but the truth was, the writing seemed to emerge in a bit more of a focused and organized manner. My grammar had improved; there were less typographical errors. Things made more syntactical sense, in general. The focus of the poems had shifted to more spiritual matters, matters of fertility, love, and imminent motherhood.

I am roughly five months along as I am writing this. It is summer, so there is very little responsibility aside from daily worship, cleaning, writing, and watching my belly gradually grow larger and larger. Last night, I felt for the first time the baby’s squirm (and perhaps a little kick?)–it was determined a week ago that I should be expecting a little girl. Sometimes I wonder whether the unborn baby (Clare) has any sense of what I am thinking. There has been very little research conducted on the cognitive connections between mother and fetus, but nevertheless, still I wonder sometimes if she can sense what is on my mind–if someday her creative impulses will derive from a similar place to mine.

They say that dreams are more vivid when you’re pregnant, and that you dream sometimes in symbol about birth. Last night I dreamt about a very large zucchini. I don’t know what it meant, but whatever it was, it turned up in an early morning poem. And I couldn’t ask for a better inspiration than that.

Power is arbitrary when it steps out from the laws of the system it generates, fosters, or embodies, thus causing the system to scramble and struggle to “explain” and fit this act to the laws inherent in the system. The most blatant example of this would the way a culture might explain the arbitrary force of a great natural catastrophe as an “act” of God, either to “punish” or test his believers. The transference of an arbitrary force into a “willed” act and further, an act with a purposeful intent relieves the stress, and hides the possibility that, if the storm is merely arbitrary then the system cannot explain its own reason for being and may be arbitrary (a system that admits to being arbitrary is not long for this world) There is an evolution of this thinking toward “mystery.” One admits one does not know, then builds a piety around not knowing, elevating the arbitrary deeds of the highest power within the system to a “mystery.” All attempts to explain or challenge this mystery, to accuse it of inconsistency, or wrongdoing, to see it as “arbitrary” become impious acts. One is not to question, or labor long over the mystery of the arbitrary. The stress of the arbitrary is relieved by its laudatory elevation to “mystery.”

In this respect, God never explains to Job why he, who loves Job, makes a rather whimsical wager with Satan and allows Satan to destroy everything in Job’s world except his life, and the wife who urges him to “curse God and die.” When God finally makes an appearance at the end of the story, he does not explain himself but gives the greatest verbal example of the elevation of the arbitrary and the power of the arbitrary to the status of mystery and it’s “majesty” ever invoked. God puts forth a series of questions. Satan (which means the accuser) had earlier questioned Job’s virtue by wagering: if you take away all you have given him, he will curse you. In short, love that is conditional must not have true power because it isn’t arbitrary–beyond the conditional. Love of God must be beyond condition. It must not be based on God’s mercy, providence, love or law, but “just because.”It is from this “just because” that all the qualifiers (systems and reasons for loving God) proceed. Satan is incapable of “just because,” and cannot abide either the arbitrary mercy of God, or the arbitrary faithfulness of man. Satan “accuses,” and by doing so he questions God’s power and his creation. Satan is the uber-prosecutor of systems, the ultimate moralist, and profaning instigator and exposer of all contradiction. Satan exposes, and he attempts to expose God by proving that “conditions”–not God, are all powerful.

In a sense, the comforters of Job, upholders of the system, scramble to do the same. Job must have done something “wrong.” God punishes the wicked, not the virtuous.” Finally, the youngest speaks out of turn, and gives the speech that God follows up on: who are you to question God?” This is not the rightful speech for the one subservient to the system, and God knocks the youngest speaker away with the Maelstrom, and gives the speech himself. The speech is an invocation of power, not an explanation. It asks a series of questions that amount to “who are you to question me?” God’s majesty, God’s power beyond all conditions wipes away Job’s protests. Before Job receives a single thing back from God, he is utterly satisfied by this show of power because it has “answered” him without explaining–the perfect answer of true power. Some of the speech:

Then God answered Job out of the Maelstrom, and said:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? [his is addressed to the youngest comforter as well as Job]
Gird up thy loins like a man [Stop being a bitcher and moaner] for I will demand of thee, and answer me: [now the questions come hot and heavy]:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare if you have understanding.
Who has laid the measures thereof, if you know? Or who has stretched the line upon it?

Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the corner stone thereof
When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

God goes on like that for pages, a verbal might to match his creative might. God blusters, questions, displays his power, and never explains himself. Then he waits for Job’s answer. Remember that Job’s children are dead, his fortune has vanished, his body is covered in sores. Nothing in the conditional world has changed, and yet all has changed because the arbitrary has now been elevated to the level of mystery, and whereas the arbitrary causes despair and stress, and confusion, the mysterious inspires awe, and submission, and gravitas. A man who complains lacks an essential gravitas. It is this lack of Gravitas that allows Odysseus to break the ribs of Thersites and win the approval of the men. Power answers with majesty, with force. It’s gravitas may have no reason behind it. It does not answer to reason. Majesty answers to majesty. Job replies:

I know that you can do everything and that no thought can be withheld from you.
Who is he that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore have I uttered that I understood not;
things too wonderful for me which I knew not.
Here, I beseech you and I will speak: I will demand of you and declare unto me.
I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear: but now my eyes see [the origin of the saying "seeing is believing].
Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

God goes on to defend Job to the comforters whom he condemns. The comforters have insisted God is just, and Job must have done something wrong. In the system in which they judge, God cannot punish a good man, only an evildoer. But if this so, then God is subject to the law. Job has maintained his innocence, has insisted her has obeyed the system to the ultimate degree. His recalcitrance is judged as pride, even by some modern religious, but what it is, without Job’s conscious knowledge of it, is an affirmation of powers right to be arbitrary: God is God. God does what God does. Job is not calm or cheerful in suffering. (modern Christians would condemn him for his loud complaining) I greatly enjoy Paul’s assertion that Job is counted righteous because of his faith. Consider Christ’s saying: “blessed are they who have not seen yet believed” and match it to Job’s “”but now I see.” Faith and belief are not the same. Faith is an action of obedience beyond belief, beyond reason, condition, beyond justification. It is obedience rather than conformity. It shares in the power of the arbitrary by enduring beyond conditions. Only in this way may we see Job as made righteous by his faith–if we make a distinction between faith and belief. The comforters believe in the system, but they cannot transcend it to the realm of “the first”–its power as arbitrary force. They believe that no good man can be afflicted. They believe in the rules of the system, not its power. God scolds them and praises Job for speaking rightly: there is no reason for his suffering except the discretion of power. Job has done nothing wrong and yet suffered the misfortunes common to evil doers. God calls Job’s laments, his stubborn refusal to cave into the idea that he has transgressed the “thing that is right.” Faith is not belief in the system, but the action of obedience in the face of its arbitrary power.

Modern scholars insist that the section in which Job receives back tenfold of all he has lost was an addition because, at this level of the unconditional submission to the arbitrary first, men cannot bear to know this must be done beyond recompense, even beyond the hope of heaven. Mystic saints such as Theresa of Avila cannot accept heaven as the conditional award for holiness. They say that an eternity in hell would be fine so long as their love of God could remain. Heaven as “payment” seems cheap to those most intimate with the arbitrary power behind system, especially in so far as that arbitrary power is raised to the level of mystery/majesty. Here a return to Bentham’s dyslogistic, neutral, and laudatory registers might prove helpful:

Laudatory: Mysterious, “terrible” (in the positive biblical sense), majestic and beyond condition.
Neutral: unconditional
Dyslogistic: mere whim, capricious, hypocritical, unfair, un reasoned, unjust, arbitrary.

The lament of Job makes him appear to the comforters as if he were accusing God in the dyslogistic register of being arbitrary, cruel, unjust, unfair. In a sense, this is true, and what we call a change in Job’s attitude after God’s great thundering of rhetorical questions is not so much a change as it is what we talked about when we mentioned Aesthetic transference. Job elevates his speech to the laudatory register of mystery, majesty, and unconditional love, and by doing so, God counts him right for God is transcendent of the registers and, as long as Job does not curse him directly, he may speak in the dyslogistic register lamenting arbitrary power and still be justified. It is a shift in nomenclature, and yet the fact remains: God does whatever God wants, and need not explain, and we may lament, yet who are we to hold God to the letter of his own laws?

I am now going to make an enormous leap from Job to a poem by William Carlos Williams, a poem in which Williams breaks the very laws ascribed to him, yet fulfills the one law that no one seems to realize was Williams’ guiding aesthetic principle, beyond even direct contact. Williams himself formulated it in his autobiography when he said Shakespeare was mistaken: the artist does not hold the mirror up to nature, but rather uses the dynamics and energy of the organic in making a “thing made out of words.” One co-opts nature’s energy, directness, and immediacy. Rather than reflecting or representing it, one uses its energy as raw material. Williams was noted as a champion of unmetered verse (he would have protested that he was not without meter, but finding the “natural breath” and the variable foot). Williams was raised above the influence of Eliot and many of the approaches he first advanced and advocated are now “norms” of “good” poetry: contact with the thing at hand (show don’t tell), the poem as thing, process, the rejection of set forms for organic form, the anti-poetic, the admonishment to “make it new,” the rejection of English stanzas and meters in preference for a natural American vernacular, a stripping away of rhetorical devices, including the psalm like use of anaphora and enumeration found in the long lined “free verse” of Whitman, also an extreme belief in the organic process of the poem rather than repetition.

In the poem I am now going to look at, Williams trespasses against most of these rules, but think about it: if one is claiming the power, and dynamic of natural breath and meter, one must allow the power of the arbitrary. In this case, Williams is stressing his chief aesthetic faith (praxis) over his chief aesthetic belief system (theoria). In point of fact, I would argue that the hall mark of a major or great poet lies always in a fruitful conflict between praxis and theoria. At any rate, the poem:

The Dance

In Brueghal’s great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeel and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling about
the Fair grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
in Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess.

Let us, for the sake of greater clarity and greater confusion, pretend Williams is a “system (in a sense he is since he is a major and generative poet). Let us for the sake of further clarity and confusion pretend he did not write this poem and it is being read by a radical gatekeeper of the system known as Williams. This gatekeeper is an “authority” a work shop leader. He has been telling the kids to “show, don’t tell.” He has been warning them that set form is outmoded, and that new ideas call for new measures. He has been drilling them in the modernist dislike of repetition. He is a radical believer in organic form, and against rhyme for the most part as well as traditional meter. He also thinks poems should make direct contact with life, not paintings. They should speak from life. He does not like a lot of redundancy, nor does he like free verse to be stichic and box-like. HE is the gatekeeper of the Williams system. His job is to impose order, to uphold the “values” of that system, and to be, at all times, a terministic screen against any arbitrary escape from the values of the system. He comes to this poem, which we are pretending is not known or famous, and not written by Williams, and he tells the kid: “try writing this poem and revising it to have a less artificial rhythm. Break the lines, and put it in a series of tercets. The rhyme dance as they prance sounds awkward. In point of fact, all the rhymes in this poem seem awkward. Get rid of them. So the revision goes like this:

The dancers go around
to the squeel of bag pipes,
to the sound of fiddles and bugles.

They tip their bellies
which are as round as the thick
sided glasses from which they guzzle.

Their hips and bellies are off balance.
They kick and roll about
the fair grounds, swinging their butts.

Those shanks must be sound to bear up
under such rollicking measures.
And so they dance.

No reference to a painting necessary (unless the poet puts it in the title). No “awkward” rhymes, no set meter, no possum, no taters. Awful! And yet it is totally within the free verse, unrhymed, unmetered “System” by which workshop leaders wield their power. Their power is arbitrary, but it is invested in insisting there are rules of thumb that are not arbitrary. The true power of the arbitrary lies in Williams’ breaking of his own “system’s” laws. Power may violate its own definitions or it is not power. By breaking the rules, he affirms their highest “spirit.” Being a good poet, he answers to the intentions of the poem as they occur, not caring if the praxis of the poem goes directly against his theoria. Men work; gods play.

The creative power of a poet must include the possibility of arbitrary power or it serves only competence and adherence to an aesthetic. At best, this achieves craft and competence with the rules of the system. It is the vast majority of what most magazines accept as “good poems.” Of course, true power brokers can be just as arbitrary. They call this being “open minded.” For this reason, I tell my students to try their best to read a poem within the intentions of the poem rather than with their own “uber” poem or aesthetic or even their own taste getting in the way. Our “values” should be used rather than imposed, but this is difficult if not impossible. It takes what the Zen call “beginners mind,” what scientists call “null position.” We must be careful even of such seemingly benevolent forces as beginners mind, and null position because enforced universally, they, too, become totalitarian (Think of the ahistorical aesthetics of the Cleanth Brooks school of criticism in which each poem was to be seen as a first, without precedent, or think about how the null position of science can be cruel in certain social situations).

The “balance of power” is one of my favorite contradictions in terms, but we must be “toward” it even if it can never be achieved. To be toward what ain’t is not delusional. Our lives are toward what ain’t: death, oblivion. I am a Burke-ian to the extent that I agree with him on the value of the word “toward” but we must not yield even to the bureaucracy of toward, and must allow for the impossibility of actually arriving. Note that Williams pulls off a sort of Aesthetic transference of the old translated into the terms of the new. This is not evolution as opposed to revolution. It is a conjuring, a con, and the best sort. It is toward the good of the work. It is both delightful comedy and sadness that someone working the Williams system might attack this wonderful poem on the grounds that it does not follow the rules.

We often talk of attention in terms of power, but perhaps inattention is more suitable to a consumer/service culture. Certain catch phrases such as “don’t sweat the small stuff” or “stick to the point” or “just the facts” hint that we are a busy, practical, and rather diseased race of grade C newspaper reporters. We don’t like verbal noise, but we can get arrogant in our “simplicity” and opt for the simplistic, especially when it suits our self-interest or plays into our prejudice as to who and what should not be listened to.

I will map out 12 kinds of inattention that I have perceived working in aesthetic, political, social, and sexual realms, many of which involve a sort of metonymy dynamic of omission (things we leave out thinking it stands for the whole, in order to exclude, in order to prioritize, in order to act, in order to flee/fight/freeze, in order to imply superiority, in order to imply inferiority, etc, etc).

1. Privileged and Entitled Inattention:
a. Overt displays of Boredom and haughtiness.
b. Cutting off someone in the middle of their speech or conversation while paying the one who was speaking no mind and usurping the attention of his or her audience (a verbal equivalent to cutting in on a dance floor)
c. Tapping the pencil, or one’s fingers, doodling, texting, yawning
d. Misdirected attention to a detail that has nothing to do with the purpose of the other, and by this misdirected attention, implying that either what he or she is saying is not worth listening to, or is being challenged by some incongruity of dress, mannerisms, or situational digression (the bee in the room)

2. Edenic of Pre-formative Inattention: Based on an Ur construct of what should be said, how it should be said, and why it should be said that way which does not coincide with the what, how, and why of the speaker (or author). Any preconceived rubric of attention that is not being met either through aesthetic or informative appeal and thereby triggers a sense of imperfection, judgment of imperfection, or rejection of the significance of either the speaker or what the speaker is saying. We shut down because they are not living up to our preconceived notions of utterance. Happens most often when someone speaks in a register we find uneducated, inauthentic, or inappropriate to the occasion. Often, a scientist who attempts to write for a lay audience will be accused by his purist fellow scientists (and also jealous fellow scientists) of being too broad, or unscientific. They have an Ur construct of science, and although they will all insist they want science to be accessible to the public (and to givers of grants) they feel rather whored- out when something is too removed from their own rhetoric and methodology. At any lecture I ever attended by a scientist speaking to the lay people, some mildly pedantic to absolutely furious scientist in the crowd would try to expose him as simplistic or false.

3. Hierarchical Inattention: Situation in which one’s rank or purpose dictates that the other be ignored or passed by without remark. The scorn is made conspicuous by being passive.

4. Communal Inattention: Such as when a group, a clique, a couple only have “eyes” or ears for each other.

5. Aggressive Inattention: By ignoring or failing to acknowledge, one clearly means to devalue or exclude. Snubbing. Often not a person we might think inferior so much as dislike.

6. Seductive Inattention: When one withholds attention either to draw attention, or revive interest or to appear worthy of a more abject performance. Making the other “work” for our attention.

7. Cognitive Inattention: When the listener (or non-listener) has neither the frame of reference, nor the knowledge of not understanding, and, for all intents and purposes, the thing being said cannot be acknowledged or approached because, in terms of the non-listeners particular reality, it does not exist. They just don’t hear it.

8. Categorical Inattention: when one is waiting for pertinent points, selecting what seems pertinent and ignoring what seems subsidiary or unimportant. Very close to Edenic inattention. We have a sense of what’s important before the person even starts to speak. Very common when a certain procedure in a certain field is par for the course and the speaker is not following it.

9. Antipathic Inattention: When one’s hatred or scorn turns everything another says either into a stupidity, a challenge, or a worthless utterance. This form of inattention is like aggressive/hierarchical inattention except ratcheted up to the point of being violent.

10. Catastrophic Inattention: When antipathic inattention has reached such a phase of demonization that words are put in the mouth of the speaker, distorted, demonized, or simply contrived so as no real listening or attention is possible. Trauma can cause such catastrophic inattention so that the hated or feared, or despised one is triggered by the flimsiest of semiotic indicators. A woman violently raped may not be able to listen to anything any man has to say without feeling anger and shutting down. She may not hear his words. She may only hear: Man.

11. Stylistic Inattention: When one’s style dictates what one does not include, or excludes from ones attention, interests, and response. Not the same as Edenic inattention in so far as it has a performative aspects: one shows who one is by what one does not say or pay attention to.

12. Covert Inattention: One seems to be all ears, can even repeat verbatim what has just been said, but is really not hearing it all as a responsive agent, but more in the way a parrot might, through a force of automatic rehash. This all too often is the result of education. A few minutes later, and one cannot remember even the gist of what was said.

We can apply all these forms of inattention to the critical understanding of any act of language, including a poem. We can know a poem very often in greater depth by realizing what it does not include, what it is not paying attention to at any given moment. I am opening my book American Poets at random and I come upon a free verse poem by the poet, Tony Hoagland. It is called “One Season” Let’s see if we can apply some of our forms of inattention .

One Season

That was the summer my best friend
called me a faggot on the telephone,
hung up, and vanished from the earth,

Hoagland is not paying attention in this beginning three line structure to what his friend looked like, or the reasons why his best friend said what he said, or even as to why his best friend was his best friend. In point of fact, for the whole of the poem we never know why this boy was his best friend. No character trait or actual moment of intimacy is ever developed or described. We can assume this is stylistic inattention–that he has chosen to leave this info out to concentrate on some other theme–in the case of this poem, his own suffering, but not right now. In terms of categorical inattention, he does not consider his friends appearance or his friend’s motives for saying what he said to be important–at this moment in the poem.

This structure he shapes the poem into called a stanza in three line units of measure, known as a tercet. This means Hoagland is ignoring the possibility of utterance being shaped by couplets, or in a stichic (no stanza breaks) structure, or as quatrains and even of the line as an end stopped (fully independent) entity. We do not know why he chooses tercets. Hoagland does not pay attention to the closed off structure of tercets and ends the third line with a comma, bleeding the overall sentence of his utterance into the next tercet (stanzaic enjambment), and not concluding his first sentence until the first half of the first line of the third tercet. Tercet, line and sentence integrity all function independently as if they were not paying attention to each other. Each has a different agenda. The tercet provides a consistent shaping mechanism. The line breaks the sentence into independent and dependent clauses, but they are, in a sense, ignoring each other. A line says it’s a poem. A tercet says it’s a poem of a certain order. A sentence is the main verbal propulsion. Beyond being boxed into tercets, the lines are neither closed, nor uniform, and they vary in length.

There is a lot of contradiction here, or merely three forces that do not fully acknowledge each other (cognitive inattention). The poet is paying attention then to linear and stanzaic enjambment, but not to linear or stanzaic integrity. We could conclude that he is loose in some way, almost sloppy and casual, but not without attention to the pretense of a structure. So we can say that this three line structure, its independence from line or sentence and what his best friend did in terms of narrative order are of paramount importance in the first stanza, and everything else is subsidiary. He is paying very little attention to description, or to line or stanzaic integrity except in so far as he has decided that the poem should be broken into tercets (an arbitrary decision?). We can say that this first stanza is a procedural/narrative of what his “best friend” did shaped into a structure that is open ended. It is a stanza called a tercet, but we don’t know why Hoagland has decided to structure the poem in this manner (it remains in tercets through out except for the last stanza). He does not pay attention to line length. We can say that Hoagland does not pay attention to lines as lines per se, or to tercets as closed structures, but shape is something he pays attention to. This could be a form of covert inattention. He seems to care about a structure, but he may be simply using it to give the poem a semblance of symmetry. He seems to be listening to some dictate toward structure or shaping, but his lines are irregular, and his sentences are independent of those lines. He is paying lip service to a form, but he is also imposing that form on a somewhat arbitrary line and sentence structure.

And so we can assume that Hoagland is not so much interested in organic form as in pre-ordained or arbitrarily imposed form as a shaping device. In effect, he is ignoring or not paying attention to the shape in relation to the flow of his utterance either in terms of line or sentence. The full meaning of a line can belong to several lines, and the full sentence to several stanzas. Line and sentence are not paying attention in a sense to this “box” called a tercet. They spill out of the box, even to the point where we could say that what is being said is ignoring how the poem is being shaped. The tercet is ignoring the flow of line and sentence, and line and sentence are ignoring the structural integrity of the tercet. They function independently of each other. Either that, or their inattention to each other is meant to create a dynamic, a tension between them. We shall see.

Hoagland is not rhyming. There is little or no alliteration. In this first tercet, no metaphor or analogy show up, and the phrase “vanished from the earth” is somewhat overly familiar. He is not end stopping. He is not stopping the thought even at the end of the stanza. He is not being formal, or, rather he is being formal only by one arbitrary device: the tercet. He is also formal so far in terms of noun verb agreement, and the main subject (my best friend) has three modifiers–called, hung up, vanished. Of these three verbs, called, and hung up seem without any attitude or motive except to accurately describe the actions of the best friend. Hoagland is not paying attention then to a formality natural to tercets, but rather to some pre-utteral value of shape in relation to the tercets. As far as his sentences and lines go, they ignore the tercet and pay attention to what the best friend did. This is called narrative. Hogland is telling, but in a very concrete way, yet without any detail that would mar or interrupt his narrative. We can say then that Hoagland’s is ignoring description, appearance, and the relationship of form to utterance, and there is an implicit Edenic inattention here: he ignores his own looseness of utterance because he has a sense that putting that utterance into tercets and lines shows or makes it a poem, or, at least fulfills some rule of spacial structuring, of regularity against the irregularity of sentence, line, and line length which a reader may not recognize as a poem. We shall see.

He has ignored the logical priority of line and sentence for the appearance of a set structure (hierarchical inattention). If the tercets are not closed, then what is the purpose of the structure? Is it arbitrarily imposed upon the poem to create symmetry? Is it a way of ignoring the looseness of a casual utterance in order to give the poem a structural value? So far, we know that Hoagland pays little or no attention to description, rhyme, alliterative devices, or even the form he has imposed. He does pay attention to what the best friend did, and his last verb, “vanished” seems categorically different than his previous two. To “vanish from the earth” is dramatic, even traumatic. It implies ceasing to exist. In a sense Hoagland is the one who ceases to exist to his friend as a friend, but that is deflected onto the friend who “vanished.” Hoagland chooses to ignore “And I ceased to exist” (which is still hyperbolic, but seemingly more to the point of the emotion) and see his friend as vanishing from the earth. Hoagland has not paid any attention to his emotion here, or rather he has left that up to the reader’s imagination (seductive inattention). The verb “vanished” implies a hyperbolic action. OK–so we can assume from what Hoagland leaves out that he is being:

1. Narrative
2. Emotionally closed
3. Loose and causal.
4. Structural in terms of consistent three line stanzas.

We could see all this opening as seductive inattention. Hoagland is withholding certain information, or refusing to let the poem listen to its own structures, or implications, at least for now. If this is all we had to go on, then We could say by his word choice that he avoids formality (“faggot”) and overtly poetic language (though not dyslogistic and hyperbolic registers of speech) and that he is of a narrative bent. We could say he does not pay attention to being overtly poetic though he does pay covert attention to form in regard to keeping the poem structured in tercets.

We could learn much about Hoagland by seeing what he does not include, and what he does not pay attention to. We could see that he, at least, at this point, is a narrative poet with a story to relate, who is trying hard to deflect his worst fear (that he was erased) by projecting it onto the friend who “vanished.” We could conjecture that he is a poet who hedges his emotional bets, and practices a sort of inattention to direct displays of emotion, at least in terms of the narrative. We can even make a prediction that if the friend has vanished from the face of the earth, and this is deflection and projection, then at some point in the poem, the poet will own the erasure himself. In a sense, he has written a closed narrative in so far as his best friend has already called him a faggot, hung up the phone and vanished from the earth. If narrative is his main agenda, how will it be continued? We can conjecture that the rest of the poem, bereft of the friends further actions, will use the narrative of the speaker’s reaction. It may go to a narrative before the vanishing (flash back) or race forward towards the results. We don’t know yet. And what word in the first tercet draws are attention? The most dyslogistic word: faggot. Is the speaker a faggot? Has he done something to make the friend feel ill at ease, sexually speaking?

We read on: Let’s see what happens in the next tercet:

a normal occurrence in this country
where we change our lives
with the swiftness and hysterical finality…

Ah, he is no longer paying attention to his friend or to narrative, but to some general principle within his friend’s action that he considers normal in this country. He has ceased to pay attention to the narrative (at least for now) and is concentrating on its larger, more general relation to what he perceives to be a normal way of acting in this country. All the qualifiers here deal with: change that is “swift” and “hysterical.” He chooses to normalize these under a national identity, and to ignore his friend’s isolated act of individual dismissal and see it as symptomatic of a larger tendency. By doing so, he detaches from the full agony of individual experience, and enters communal Inattention: It is not his friend who dismisses, but “we” (including himself) who dismiss. He can share in the crime of his friend vicariously. He is paying attention now to philosophizing the friend’s action into a larger schema of actions that he attributes to America itself. He is not paying attention to his pain, not allowing it to be an isolated particular. No, it must be ignored as a personal experience (catastrophic inattention as well as a few others) and raised to the power of national catastrophe. He is stepping back from all the actual actions to confer an “ontology” upon them. We can now assume that he is a poet who reserves the right to go in and out of his narratives. What he has not gone in and out of is the arbitrary structure of tercets, and his sentence and line structures are even more inattentive to the tercet than before.

We wonder: is he anxious, because of his narrative tendency, to make sure no one thinks he is not a poet? For all his informal language (he uses verbs like “dump,” and downright vulgarities like “fuck anyone”) he may suffer an anxiety common to narrative poets: a fear that the loss of the usual devices of rhetorical lyrical writing will disqualify the poem from being thought a poem: hence, the use of strict stanza structure, and what else? It seems here, he does poetic figures such as “hysterical finality” and, at the beginning of the next tercet, he completes the thought (and the first sentence of the poem) with:

with …the hysterical finality

of dividing cells.

He is using a species of analogy and metaphor, which does not appear in his narrative schema. He is not paying attention to narrative here, but digressing into its larger implications, and we can say that, at such moments of inattention to narrative, he is most likely to stop paying attention to idiomatic phrases, too, such as “vanished from the earth”, and enter what are more properly called lyrical or philosophical digressions and conjectures(common to narrative poetry since Homer). We can now see that Hoagland obeys the integrity of a full sentence, but not the integrity of line and stanza. We can see that his narratives and appeals to casual speech are ignored at times when he wishes to step out of them and be “lyrical” or poetic. He employs a bit of hyperbole in his first, largely narrative sequence, and so we may think that this is another device–to use a little, but not too much of literary devices in the narrative sections, and to be full throttle rhetorical and metaphorical (and poetic) only in those sections that are not paying attention to narrative. Let’s see what he does in the rest of this third tercet:

… that month
the rain refused to fall,
and fire engines streaked back and forth crosstown.

He’s back to narrative, and paying no attention to the larger ontology. His new narrative is the larger events surrounding his abandonment. In a sense this is metaphor made conspicuous by its absence. These dramatic events also fill in for the absence of overt emotional reaction to being abandoned. Note how the rain is personified as “refusing” to fall. The whole town is a metaphor for his despair, rejection, and confusion. Rain refusing to fall is the arbitrary power of rejection and dismissal of expected actions, and fire engines racing are the concrete manifestation of the “hysterical finality.”

He goes on:

towards smoke -filled residential zones
where people stood around outside, drank beer,
and watched the neighbors houses burn.

Ah…the first full end stopped stanza! And note that he is revisiting a narrative procedural he used in the first tercet: the three verb narrative: they stood, they drank, they watched. His friend: called, hung up, and vanished. Same basic rhythm, and the intent seems to be to link the heartlessness of his friend, and the senselessness of it to the crowd’s indifference even as they watch. I do not know if this is conscious on Hoagland’s part, and I might not be able to discern it, had I not decided on this method of entering the poem through both what it does and what it does not do (I may have suffered from cognitive inattention), but this three verb action implies a larger sense of indifference to pain, or to the poet’s suffering. People do not care, though they may be causally attentive. They drink beer while everything in someone’s life is burning. This is covert inattention. The poet never says woe is me. He is never emotionally direct (this may be a form of seductive inattention)The poet is pretending not to be aware (or is cognitively inattentive) to the link between his feelings of being a victim of arbitrary rejection, and the larger sense of no one really caring when shit just happens.

We will lay down the rest of the poem, now that you can see the usefulness of entering a poem both through what it pays attention to at any given moment and what it chooses to ignore:

It was a bad time to be affected
by nearly anything,
especially anything as dangerous

as loving a man, if you happened to be
a man yourself, ashamed and unable to explain
how your feelings could be torn apart

by something ritual and understated
as friendship between males.
Probably I talked too loud that year

and thought an extra minute
before I crossed my legs; probably
I chose a girl I didn’t care about

and took her everywhere,
knowing I would dump her in the fall
as part of evening the score,

part of practicing the scorn
it was clear I was going to need
to get across this planet

of violent emotional addition
and subtraction. Looking back, I can see
that I came through

in the spastic, fugitive half-alive manner
of accident survivors. Fuck anyone
who says I could have done it

differently. Though now I find myself
returning to the scene
as if the pain I fled

were the only place that I had left to go;
as if my love, whatever kind it was, or is
were still trapped beneath the wreckage

of that year,
and I was one of those angry firemen
having to go back into the burning house,
climbing the ladder

through the heavy soke and acrid smell
of my own feelings
as if they were the only
goddamn thing worth living for.

Note how the covert linking of his experience with the fire becomes overt as the poem moves towards its payoff. Note how he never says whether he had homoerotic feelings for his best friend, but leaves it as a possibility. Note how he gets even more careless about the tercets as they go along, and eventually, at the end, abandons this structure for two quatrains (much as a sonnet abandons its prevailing structure for the final couplet). He is no longer paying attention to his major shaping device, and perhaps he does this to imply that the poem is now entering its most sincere heartfelt climax in which being attentive to the consistent tercet structure would be a wrong move.

His forms of attention and inattention are based on what might be seen as narrative rather than poetic form, and, in truth, the interaction of narrative and larger ontology peculiar to the personal essay or creative non-fiction piece seems applicable here. In moments of anxiety over simply relating events he resorts to analogy, extended metaphor, and the overall distancing agent of philosophy. He ties it all together by linking the disparate narratives of his friend’s rejection of him with the scene of a great accident, and he then makes the rhetorical gambit that he shares, at least vicariously, in the trauma of a survivor of such an accident. From a standpoint of organic form, what is organic to this poem is momentary digression and inattention to strict narrative, introduction of a secondary narrative, and then a bringing together of the two narratives under the larger ontology of catastrophic experience. His hedging is structural as well as emotional. He tells rather than shows his emotions. He does not pay attention to his actual personal emotions except under the guise of this larger disaster. He beats around the bush. Here, we may see aspects of traumatic inattention.

Thus, we can enter any poem using this tool of inattention, and find it useful. It is also useful to understanding group dynamics, especially where the different forms of inattention come into conflict. For example, the inattention of a class to a teacher when a bee enters the room positioned against the inattention of two people in the class who are inattentive to anyone except each other (including the bee) while the friend of the girl, who is secretly in love with her and resents her exclusion (a cock block), might ignore her friends attention for two (communal inattention) and cut them off in mid-flirt to announce the bee, at which point they might freeze her out by giving her a brief look of boredom and disdain. A whole short story could be written about this:

1. Teacher: forty, a little odd and always humorless who demands attention be paid and takes offence at the slightest lack of it.
2. A couple, or future couple falling in love.
3. The best friend of the girl in this situation who is in love with her friend, won’t admit it, not even to herself, but is royally pissed that her friend only pays attention to this boy she has begun to hate.

We could do the story from multiple perspectives, or partial omniscience (in the mind or from the view point of one character). It could be in first or third person. We could play it out like this:

The teacher, Mr. Rimsley is trying to explain the importance of Ancient Rome’s system of roads to the empire. He could have a bad comb over, and, if we were in the head of one of the characters, the character might notice the comb over, and the terrible choice of shirt rather than what Mr. Rimsley is saying. Kids could be yawning, texting. The couple who are falling in love could be bonding, paying attention to no one else, including the poor “best friend” Rhonda(we might tell the story through her point of few). Rhonda decides to send a text message to her friend right there in class to the effect of: “Why don’t you just get a room, for God sake, and stop pretending you’re my friend.” Mr. Rimsley notices her texting, and makes her stand up. He has had enough. He is going to humiliate her by having her read what she just texted. At that moment, a bee flies into the room. The kids do what kids do when bees fly in: use it as an excuse to get out of their seats, disrupt class, etc. Mr. Rimsley says: “Who opened the window?” He is furious. The girl feels saved by the bee, except for one thing: her friend sees she has a text, reads it and, horrors, shows it to her soon to be boyfriend. They quickly glance at Rhonda, a sort of look of benign contempt, and the girl shuts off her cell phone, and puts it away, continuing to talk to the boy, hardly cognizant of the bee. Mr. Rimsley might be expected to get the bee to fly out the window. Instead, he traps it in his hands, not caring if it stings him, crushes it, throw it to the floor, and grinds it under his shoe. If done skillfully, this bee might be the sacrificial substitute for crushing all those disrespectful bastards who make his life a living hell. We can weave all sorts of inattention and implication through this story.

Here are a few ways to explore these ideas more:
1. Write this story out in your own way, using description, setting the scene, etc. Try to get concrete examples of the types of inattention into the story.
2. Write about an experience in your own life in which one of these types of inattention took place.
3. Re-write Hoagland’s poem, or re-line it. Take out parts you don’t think are necessary, or write it from his friend’s point of view.
4. Find a poem you can look at through these kinds of inattention. Use my close reading as a model.

“The Waste Land” is most usually and most persuasively read as a satire. The argument for “The Waste Land” as a satire sounds something like this: Written in the wake of WWI, a time of immense cultural (and personal) confusion, Eliot’s waste is pure disharmony between body and mind; the triumph of industry over civility and of frivolity over responsibility; and the ultimately sallow consolation of restoration only in one’s own headspace. Poetry itself is implicit is this decay— Romanticism’s unearned novelties a reflection of hubris and Victorianism’s decadence only spit-shining a deeper blemish.  But of course, Eliot is a poet. This irony of “The Waste Land” is best represented by its only true emotional center, the second line of quoted material taken from Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins/Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.” Here our “The Waste Land”’s speaker is channeling a father gone insane with the death of his son—the opposite of Hamlet—in which he (the father) will use the stage to draw out guilt from his son’s killers. In “The Waste Land” we see that poetry, for Eliot, only continues to be a possibility because of this father, this tradition, which can be reused and recycled at the given historical moment’s discretion.

So fragments are the order of the day. The text is divided between poem proper and footnotes, the poem proper is divided into sections, no narrative calcifies among these sections, even the allusions divide their ancestry between what is known as East and West. The speaker, of course, is worse for the wear (ie so nuts they’re still roasting him (yes, that‘s a Fire Sermon joke)). And the one solace, these ‘fragments shored against ruin’ (please note that this is a metafictive trope regarding “The Waste Land”’s own design, famously described as collage), beacons an effort to stave off despair, heralding a tradition that has simultaneously abandoned its decedents as its decedents have abandoned it, leaving a trail of empty gestures, an uncultivated culture, a poem breaking itself apart with the without of guidance, composure, and love and compassion. Thus, “The Waste Land” is a satire, finally, of western tradition and culture. It is not linear, it does not usher a transcendent meaning, it does not reason, it’s barely for the public—and yet its contents are: Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare, etc. And so where the poem is at all comical it is so with a sort of hysterical laughter, high-brow, perhaps, but more especially high-pitched.

Given this assumption, I consider my counter to be self-evident. If “The Waste Land” is a satire by way of referencing and containing the diamonds of the West while simultaneously parodying the West’s finger-banging for an easily communicable Truth, then it is only a satire by way of its mode of reference. Were it not for “The Waste Land”‘s allusions it would be a fragmented poem. An experiment no more or less attention-grabbing than practically the entirety of Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations. A hybrid of Prufrock and Eliot’s collection titled Poems, it is the domineering use of allusion in conjunction with its teen-like angst at the lack of tangibility of the texts of which it is made that makes this poem in any way ironic.

Thus, first and foremost, “The Waste Land” is—in the tradition of Dante and Eliot’s later flag-bearer Thomas Pynchon—an encyclopedia. The notion of encyclopedic narratives comes from Ed Mendelson, and I’ll expand on this tradition in a moment, but my point here is that Eliot’s sense of responsibility is not to conjure a well-informed guffaw, bludgeoning the calamitous sexual needs of a brutish poor, but an attempt to save a few lines, a few poems, a few books for later use. I direct those who scoff to Eliot’s own “Hamlet and His Problems,”

Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret; we can only criticize it according to standards, in comparison to other works of art; and for “interpretation” the chief task is the presentation of relevant historical facts which the reader is not assumed to know.

The work of poetry as a material. As something physical, like lumber. And, according to Eliot, interpretation is matter of facts. That’s a bewildering prescription. Also, the word “standards” is odd here, and we’ll return to these things. But as an encyclopedia, “The Waste Land” is not a satire at all; instead, it’s an earnest documentation of Eliot’s very profound and very personal experience with literature. The fragments, after all, are shored against my ruin.

Three asides (concluding with awesome segue):

1. In this context, the poem proper and the footnotes—together—make a cohesive whole that is “The Waste Land.” The footnotes are part of the body of the text, nothing less. Eliot’s flippant attitude toward we-the-reader’s interpretation, the dozens of allusions (aka suggested reading), even the notes that inject Eliot’s own understanding into the text, each are elements of the poem that enjoy an all-but-equal share in consideration.

2(a). In “Burial of the Dead” the speaker says “Come in under the shadow of this red rock/(There is shadow under this red rock),/And I will show you something different from either/your shadow at morning striding behind you/or your shadow at evening rising to meet you”—why does the speaker assume you are traveling eastward? Why does Eliot’s footnote for “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih” go out of its way to mention that this is a formal closing of an Upanishad, much like “Amen” at the close of a prayer. Eliot wants one mythology to rule them all. And so he writes his western Upanishad.

2(b). For Eliot, form is not a matter of fitting the inspiration for a strait jacket. Eliot’s form creates a historical object, something with borders and boundaries. Form tempers the bleeding from one thing into another; but this is not to say that the boundaries are not, when at their best, porous.

3. What Whitman means to the epic is still becoming clear, which is nice because it means it’s a process in which we’re partaking, if we’re partaking. Speaking of process, it seems to be the hallmark of this tradition. The American epic is not as much the all-encompassing sweep of any particular poem, but is instead the motion—the before, during, and after—of each particular poet. Hence, Leaves of Grass is the becoming of Whitman. And Eliot is a full-fledged participant in this tradition. Much like Leaves of Grass, after 1925 Eliot put all of his poems, with exception of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a children’s book, into one book of Collected Poems. And if this is not enough to convince you that Eliot was invested in process, read his remarks on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which explicitly instructs readers to look at this as a one aspect of the totality of Joyce’s career.

True, Eliot’s speaker is more ornamented than our barbaric yawper. Eliot’s poems are built with closed doors, where Whitman wants the doors entirely removed. He (Eliot) prefers the ritual of technique to the ritual of intimacy. So although Eliot winces while he nods to Whitman, he nonetheless makes the nod. Remember, they are lilacs that breed from the dead land. The two are of the same lineage. Even the tension between the two is a classically American tension: Whitman, poet of action, newspapers, egalitarian even in his glances. Eliot, poet of inaction, journals, a representative from the creative elite.

Here we might again note that Eliot was a sickly child. He couldn’t play games. So he stayed inside, reading. The American stylizing of freedom is Whitman’s frontier as its absence is Eliot’s. Whitman participates, and Eliot envisions.

Encyclopedic narrative does not proceed as dramatic action. The narrative is not of people, places, and things but of words, ideas, and histories. It provides references. The processes of narrative only occur as an intellectual exercise in describing, categorizing, and reformulating. For the encyclopedia, events take place within ideas, not time. Take our dude Dante for instance. We’ll look at the Inferno.

In the Inferno Dante provides an intensely systematic description of sin. Notice that the dramatic action of Dante’s plot is decided from the beginning. There is no suspense here, no ‘what next’. The pilgrimage has been divined and it’s a comedy because it will end in Paradise. The characters are two dimensional. They’re representations of ideas—excuses for Dante and Virgil to have a chat.  The current of this story is not action. Instead it is the detail of the vision. Each punishment sheds more light on the nature of its corresponding sin by way of synecdoche (eg the lustful are blown around by the whims of the winds). His vision of Hell’s circles and their rigid hierarchies, the historical figures of his choosing, his own (Dante is a character is his own story) reactions to the punishment—all of these things lend to Dante’s classifying sin from least to most egregious.

Eliot’s encyclopedia is more . . . playful. I won’t say that it is pure play. Thomas Eliot is not Thomas Pynchon. But if Dante’s encyclopedia represents a well-ordered world and Pynchon’s encyclopedia represents a world ordered only by the patterns of one’s perception, then where is Eliot? In short, how do we read “The Waste Land” as reference? How do we use “The Waste Land”?

Eliot’s most obvious break from Dante occurs in the realm of aesthetics. To be clear, Dante’s preferred mode of operation is allegory. Eliot’s is symbolism. When I say symbolism, of course, I am referring to the aesthetic movement of which Eliot describes a variation as the definition of a poet in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The poet as a catalyst is the symbolist in motion: At the hands of the mind an emotion or feeling is processed and transformed into an entirely independent material. Like how lumber becomes a house. For Eliot, the poet is essentially a specialist. Everyone uses words but the poet designs words. The poem does not “convey” meaning. The poem is meaning.

With this in mind, that the poem’s presence is its meaning, we use “The Waste Land”’s “historical facts,” (eg the images of speech it performs, its allusions, even its lapses) like atheists in a friend’s church. We show up. We’re polite. We scoff. We’re confused. We’re offended. We like the way some things look, so we look more closely. We take what we need, we use what we can. We go Garbage Picking. We say thank you. Thank you.

It might be noted here that although the fragment was one of Eliot’s wild “inventions,” a necessary consequence and weakness of Eliot’s poetry are these fragments. For whatever reason, Eliot’s poetry is incapable of performing pattern perception. It may be that the specialist undergoes a certain occupational psychosis. The current trends toward reflexivity in nearly every discipline of study would suggest a closedness that  I sometimes assume hurts everything.

Or it may be that Eliot’s prioritization of entire realms of experience either above or below others. Exclusion of this sort, the kind that takes short cuts and calls them standards, is a mutilation. And the perpetrator is often first to be scarred.

But to be as plain as I can be, my goal here has been to define the terms and conditions for Eliot as an American. America faces some special conditions. We’re founded by slaves and idealists and—the combination of the two—entrepreneurs. The numerous paradoxes of American culture often find their home in the tension between an egalitarian proverb and the reality of the creative elite. Eliot’s poetry reflects a very specific reaction to the poet-as-a-person-who-must-get-up-and-work-everyday. For Eliot, poetry is a spiritualization of luxury. It’s the finest things, it’s the time to enjoy the finest things, it’s the burning that comes with acquiring the acquired taste. It’s the confusion thereafter, when possibilities for praxis need practice.

For choosing to write about Eliot, I have also noticed that many of my poets-in-arms borrow Eliot’s snobbery and use it against him. Yes, he is a big dumb white man. Yes, he was racist and sexist and anti-Semitic and a royalist if not a fascist. Still, it seems to me that one of the dangers of not engaging with a strand of thought is that it seeps into your own with you being able to detect its presence.

And the possible lesson from Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is that we agree on a canon, not The Canon, or even a tradition with the same guiding principles. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot hands us his own canon. This idea, that what we read can be completely private and completely public might be useful. Or a canon with the potential for flux would be nice, one that changes as needed. Certainly a canon that would include all of the voices marginalized for centuries. But a canon is there for a reason: The Community. If we are talk about the same things, if we are to really talk at all, we must have some commons between us. Straight people should endeavor to understand other sexualities. Asians should read Hispanics. White people should read black writers. Men should read women. Women should read men. Black people should read white writers. Hispanics should read Asians. The queer community should endeavor to understand other sexualities. If democracy is to exist let all permutations therein dance around a bit. This is the lesson for democracy of T. S. Eliot, the fascist.

I grew up in a neighborhood where most of the parents worked in factories or trades. The closest anyone came to a professional occupation was Ann Boyle next door who worked as an executive secretary for Bell telephone and, through the great benefits of that monopoly, was able to retire at age 55. Anne never married, but she had companions and an ample glass of scotch at the ready on the front porch. She lived with her mother and brother, did not have to pay rent, and became rich through stocks. She was my first “student” in so far as I helped her write papers when she decided to return to school and procure a college degree. I can still remember getting slowly sloshed on scotch while helping her structure a ten page paper on Martin Luther King.

Anyway, professionalism which I see as a way of life, almost a religion, never laid a glove on me. Neighborhood aesthetics, especially in that industrial/post-industrial world, were very different. Springsteen, writing of Jungle land, sang: “and the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all/they just stand back and let it all be.” This ain’t exactly true. It is true they don’t write it down, but the poets in “jungle land” are like signifying monkey, or the Irish barroom philosopher, or the folk story teller. They talk shit. They keep things lively on the corner. They are known for being “characters.” They often survived the factories and , earlier, the chain gangs, by being the tricksters–the comics, and poets, and, occasionally, the scapegoats, of the neighborhood. I was one of these people. I was the guy who told whacky stories on the front porches, or on car hoods, or in back yards on my block. I was known for being crazy. I was known for being smart. One of my many knick names was “Wild man Weil.” Another was “Mr. Encyclopedia” A third, due to my always mildly disheveled appearance, was “Scurvy Joe.” I was known as someone who could talk shit. I also played songs and wrote my own. When I was 18, on my birthday cake they wrote: “future songwriter.” This is how art is expressed where I came from:

1. You are one among others, and you assume the role of poet only by their general proclamation–not by awards, not by standards, not by credentials, but by popular acclamation from the people around you.
2. This does not give you special privileges. You serve a valuable role, but, sometimes, you are the big mouth who gets clobbered, or the nut job who is singled out and mocked. This is the double face of the trickster–half god, half animal, and very rarely allowed to be fully human. You are coyote, signifying monkey, the prophets who says the truth, even at the wrong time, the one who does not “fit” perfectly.

You are rewarded in the following ways:

1. People will keep you around even when you are not very good at your job, or very strong, or even when you are a bit of a scoundrel. They will keep you around because you provide a cathartic safety valve to blow off the steam for their frustrations, their sufferings, and their sense of drudgery. You make life a little more than it is in opposition to those forces which make life far less than what it should be.
2. You are holy. You are marked with a sign. You are holy in the sense that you are ground set apart–again, not by “achievements” (the way of the professional and the middle class) but by your role in the life of your community. The hero leaves the village to bring back fire. Unlike the hero, the neighborhood poet never leaves. You are the trespass that stays behind, that affirms but also confronts the community by being an “affront,” a difference within it, an aporia within it. To an industrial and post-industrial rust belt city, this character is on every loading dock, in every barroom, on the street corner. He or she keeps things lively and also keeps things real, and this bears absolutely no relationship to the tenets of professional art or poetry–and that includes slam. Slam will never take the place of the trickster because it has already become too coded, too fixed, and too much a part of the professional commodity machine. It is as immured in the slick and the packaged as academic work. It will never speak for those who have no real voice. It will never be the barbaric yawp. It has destroyed spoken word which had such promise, but all that has promise is constantly destroyed that it might be born again.

And so, my final, and truest distinction between the aesthetics of neighborhood and those of the professional: the professional is incapable of sacrifice in the sense of dying and rising from the dead. He does not share in mythos. His sense of success is not about glory after death; it is also not about being “present” to his community. It is about prosperity and achievement now. All is meant to be measured towards a sort of prosperity. The “Event” of death, and, more so, the event of resurrection are to be avoided at all costs. These are tacky to the professional. The professional is post-mythos, post-seasonal. It can never die and it can never be re-born. It is established. It has a process. That process recognizes “excellence” and achievement in an utterly different way. There are gatekeepers and they decide who is and who is not “good enough.” They act as a priesthood. They are the intermediaries between the professional poet and his
professional audience–most of whom, if not all of whom are fellow practitioners. There is no life here, but there is process. Occasionally, this process takes on the intimacy of the neighborhood and a certain true communitas is possible. This is rare. It is even frowned upon. To “profess” in the ancient sense was to be one who was paid for his rhetoric–his professing. He evolved from the neighborhood poet and rhetorician, but, with the rise of printing, rhetoric and form were downplayed and speechifying became frowned upon.

I am a speechifying, rhetorical, neighborhood poet. I am not a professional. Professionalism seems morally wrong to me–spiritually sinful, not because I think professionals are wrong, or sinful, but because I believe I was called to bear witness to something other than professionalism. This witness may now be only to some extinct community of factory workers and the children of factory workers, but I don’t think so. I believe I served this function for my students. I also served it for my factory workers. I cannot serve this function in the realm of professional poetry because it is exactly this function they detest. Professionalism is based on a standard, on a decorum, on a series of measures. It is based on “Schools” and patterns of networking and schmoozing. It is Ivan Ilyich over and over again. It is making me sick. It is killing my soul. I am very grateful for a job. I am grateful to support myself, but I wish it did not come at the price of being who I am. It is very different than the raucous form of being that made me love poetry. I never confined poetry to poems. Poesis exists in how you talk, how you move, what you say when you teach. My whole being was poesis, but in both the professional academic realm, and the faux- populist realm of slam, I am not allowed to exist. In these realms, the
poets have no season, no earth, no wind, no element. When these things appear, and threaten to make a perhaps event (in the sense Derrida used “perhaps” and “event”) this perhaps and this event are immediately framed in such a way as to convert them to the purpose and use of the very professionalism to which they attempted to act as exception.

Post-industrial poesis, neighborhood aesthetics

Poetry is real value labor. It does not see itself as set apart from the life and work of the community from which it arises. The poet has other jobs, most of which he usually performs indifferently because his or her true job is to express and bear witness to the community in which he or she suffers and lives.

This real value labor does not accept perceived value aesthetics. There are no gate keepers deciding who and who is not worthwhile. The poet of the neighborhood rises from the open reading. If he or she is singled out, he or she is singled out not by experts, but by those among whom they have lived. It is a word of mouth kind of thing.. It is what is sought in the midst of seasons and in the weather and the truly local–not by national presses, or awards, or credentials, but by a local sense of that poet’s inner necessity. That poet was created by his or her community. He or she can only be destroyed by that community, and he or she can only live if he or she remains in contact with the principle of that locality, that membrane of being.. This locality is rooted in purpose–in, as I said, real value labor. As such it is far more malleable, complex, and shifting than the typical definitions of poetry. It may be the right word at the right time in a crisis. It may be the perfectly apt joke, the comeback, the story told at the right time to the right person. Unlike poetry proper, it is far more situational. It fits the occasion of its utterance, but remains pure in a sense by “talking shit”–talking and speechifying, and inventing verbal worlds for the sheer hell of it, beyond the immediate purpose. It is born of purpose, but deviant from purpose in so far as it seeks life, joy, energy beyond the merely functional. It tends to be flamboyant and hyperbolic rather than understated. It tends to be rhetorical and mythic rather than factually informative and understated. It tends toward the ecstatic, the brutal, the ferocious, the beautiful, the sentimental. It is more invested in brio than in nuance. It does not trust the flawless because its chief moral purpose is to expose the falsely perfect.

This is the closest I can come to explaining the world I grew up in. I do not flourish on the professional poetry scene.. I can’t get by on my “talk” because only Irishmen from Ireland are allowed by professionals to get away with that, and even then, the Irish poets they admire are most often somber. What can I say? I feel lost. To exist in the kudos section of the universe is, for me, a construct of hell. There are no street corners, no barber shops, no factories, no true places to bear witness. The professional has triumphed. God fucking help us.