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Poetry and Poetics

Forgive me if these writings on Eliot sound a bit English in their method and tone but I’ve been reduced to reading an American for the past few weeks, so my folly is at once forgivable. Eliot is, indeed, the most American of poets, if and perhaps especially because he abandoned America. There are other reasons through which we will reach this conclusion. But, to be persistent, ask yourself, or better yet, when I, or anyone, asks you of your heritage, do respond that you that you are, in fact, American? I should guess not. Everyone knows that there is no such thing as an American, except during an election year or a country song. Come now, be plain with me—if I were to inquire as to your nationality would you point at the ground under your feet or walk me to the nearest genealogy section of a library? Better yet, would you tell me what someone told you? You would have to I suppose. The question of heritage in America, that it even is a question, obliges us to do some arranging (which is topical, actually. We are here to peruse The Waste Land.) We are a nation of outlaws, religious extremists, slaves, masters, pioneers, poor and tired, of huddled masses, plunderers, heroes, opportunists, co(dreamers)ugh, and all mongrel formulations therein implied, to say nothing of nation-states. No, we are a nation born of shoppers and service workers; by definition, Americans leave home so as to prefer themselves or leave themselves so as to prefer their home. The previous sentence exemplifies the latter condition—a touch of wisdom and a touch of gibberish. I could continue in this line of reasoning but I can tell that I am annoying you. Rightfully so. I will move on. This is a five part series—we will, together, mature. Aside: if I seem tightly wound, forgive me, this is, again, The Waste Land.

But naturally then, Eliot is the Most American Poet (MAP), having enacted something of an identity pilgrimage, abandoning the Missouri and the cowboy town of St. Louis for New and then Old England. And what do we know of him in England? Firstly, that he would not let a picture be taken in which he was not wearing a three piece suit. Secondly, that his accent was as affected and deplorable as Madonna’s. The two share a bit in common: mid-west origins, a penchant for shopping the faiths, and   for out Englishing the English. What is the English tradition? Measure, reticence, empirical evidence? Good. Eliot out-dueled the English until they erected his memorial in Westminster Abbey next to the graves of Dryden, Tennyson, and Browning; men Eliot spent his life burying.

Witticisms be damned, we do not discuss Eliot as such. True, we can read Eliot as, in the words of a friend, an intentional anachronism, but we could just as easily read him as a Conquistador understood as a deity by the honest natives or an earnest tradesman willing to bargain a few beads for a plot of land. No, we are under the impression that we have, or had, the blueprint for a tradition, and that Eliot considered himself a proper antiquarian. Eliot, it seems, regardless of his intent, was, in truth, an outlier. Does his approach ring familiar? Almost . . . puritanical? Is Eliot, most particularly in The Waste Land, not saying something to the “American tradition” like, “Go and read your books.”? Still, a good bulk of us are on the side of William Carlos Williams:

Then out of the blue The Dial brought out The Waste Land and all our hilarity ended. It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it and our brave sallies into the unknown were turned to dust.

To me especially it struck like a sardonic bullet. I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years, and I’m sure it did. Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit. I knew at once that in certain ways I was most defeated.

Eliot had turned his back on the possibility of reviving my world. And being an accomplished craftsman, better skilled in some ways than I could ever hope to be, I had to watch him carry my world off with him, the fool, to the enemy.”

A nation of mongrels inspects its goods and rules them to be too pure for Eliot. Also here is the oft-repeated sentiment that Eliot is an Academy-sized bully, and this echoes throughout the criticism of his work, regardless of the continent of its origin. Kingsley Amis also felt excluded by The Waste Land‘s density:  “I still feel that Eliot was the member of an exclusive club that didn’t include me.” This is a common mistake mas a menos. For in addition to his stature as the MAP, he is also known the world over as Poet Laureate of Nerds. The duty of the poet for Eliot “is only indirectly to the people: his direct duty is to his language, first to preserve, and second to extend and improve.” We might define the nerd as one who recoils into an ‘idea’ [language] because the ‘thing’ is unbearable and confusing in its demands. Here I am something of an antiquarian, I suppose. But nerds do not have it is easy, that is my point. This is not elitism, but nerdom. Jeanette Winterson will help me elucidate:

When I was growing up poor and Pentecostal in the north of England, books were not allowed in our house, unless they were Bible books or my mother’s mystery stories—not of the miracle play kind, but of the Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen kind. . . . Fatefully, when I was 16, and just as she was about to throw me out of the house for ever, for breaking a very big rule (not just No Sex, but definitely No Sex With Your Own Sex), my mother made a mistake. She sent me to the library to collect her weekly haul of mysteries—and on her list was Murder in the Cathedral.

She thought it was a saga of homicidal monks. In the library, I opened it—it looked a bit short for a mystery story. I hadn’t heard of T. S. Eliot, but I read the line about “sudden painful joy” and I started to cry. . . .

The unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day, and the things it made bearable were another failed family (I am adopted, so being packed off for a second time was very hard), the confusion of sexuality, and the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat and how to get on with my A-levels.

So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

Yet it is still true that the bulky musculature of Eliot’s language is off-putting and alienating. My point here is that there is more to Eliot. At his own word, our output governs his place in history.  There are many other writers who had a fond taste for Eliot, including Ralph Ellison, who remarks that Eliot’s work is the closest to the sounds of jazz that he encountered. T. S. Eliot, jazz poet!

In the proceeding study of The Waste Land we will find that if we are reading for meaning in the sense that A+B=C, we are in for task. The difficulties of TWL are manifold. Here are a few potential road blocks (I am sure that you can help me come up with better questions):

 

  1. Already I have alluded to Eliot’s criticism. How and should we at all read Eliot’s prose into his poetry? Eliot, like all big mouths, often contradicts himself (yes, I’m tempted to quote Whitman); if we do read his critical work into TWL, which, when, how, why, where?
  2. The title of the poem alludes to The Grail legends. What does this have to do with the Fisher King? Is TWL positioned within the history of romance lit?
  3. Eliot complicates (2) in the first scribble of his footnotes. Who is Jessie Weston and why is she here?
  4. I’ve heard that Eliot considered the footnotes to be a big joke, that he wrote them in jest because people considered the poem so difficult in the first place. Are they a key to the poem or are they another mask?
  5. Speaking of masks, what is this style? How do we read a line like “to get the beauty of it hot?”
  6. More on masks: I am seeing speakers, but they’re fairly strange speakers. Are there characters in this poem?
  7. Why so many languages?
  8. The poem feels like it is moving to one, big, unified meaning. And yet the last stanza is the most disorienting part of the whole thing? What does it mean??

IMAGE: Marco Munoz

It is hard to have fun in graduate school or in workshops, but if you were sitting on a dock in Arkansas and watching bass boats speed by and the sun was setting in the west (since it does not usually set anywhere else) and you had a decent knowledge of iambic pentameter–or a few hundred poems memorized–you could have fun. I once spent a whole day speaking in blank verse. It was fun for me. It was not fun for those poor souls around me, but what the hell? On another occasion, I had a conversation with someone else who spoke in blank verse and we drove others crazy. We were in the liquor store:

This rum is coconut, not to my taste
but being broke and vulgar you might try?

Fie thee, mere peasant in the guise of Lord
let’s make the most of what we can afford!

Aye… for a pittance, Mr. Boston here
proffers a fifth of vodka. With some juice
it may not prove too dangerous to drink.
It’s cheaper than the rum. What do you think?

We were more annoying and clever than the fucking exchanges on the Gilmore Girls. Verse and meter made us so. I have often fantasized about a nation that could stop being simple, to the point, and frank, and start beating all around the bush. The more I spoke in iambic pentameter, the more I wanted to walk over to the side of wherever I was and have a few words with the invisible audience. I realized that form makes us insane, not its absence. The neutral, flat free verse of the middle class, in so far as it was given to phatic exchanges that are ritualized and automatic is a form of insanity. The norm is the agreed-upon madness. The abnormal is speech without consensus. Suppose two people had an exchange that went like this:

The leafy eglantine goes down to death. I am, by penguins, love, sorely assuaged.

And I the bitter root must gnaw, my dear. Wax umber. We are all disquieted!

Nay, I am bawdy as a crow and fixed as pox upon the brows of whores!

Then let us, by such fixedness, beguiled, leaf forth this day. Come hence, my comely child!

I sure would love to live in a world that spoke like this, or would I? It might be fun to spend a day inserting words we don’t usually employ into our otherwise drab and information based existence. If someone says “How are you?” You might answer

I plumb what depths there be, ere there be depths
yet hug the shore, for fear of an ill wind.
Thus shallow am I as your feigned concern,
How goes it friend? How sails thee, stem to stern?

Or suppose you answered in what sounded like spy code:

The good duck eats the stale white bread at dawn. The moon laughs at the well hung jury.

Most poetry, before the 20th century was meant to be relational. As such it assumed a listener or reader with a common sensibility and sense of meter. Modernism and post-modernism decided to disconnect from this relational dynamic. The poems are routines made out of words, and you may like the striptease or not–understand it as a thing, a construct, etc, etc. Relational poetry still exists, even that kind which assumes a certain type of reader, but not in Brooklyn (which, as I have been told, runs the world). I don’t know if I want to be a contemporary poet anymore. Maybe I never was. I don’t want to be a formalist as it is defined by Marylin Hacker or any number of folks, though I am often delighted by some of their poems and wish them well. I want to have fun. I think that’s why I have been so depressed lately…Where’s the fun? I must be a madman. I am not speaking the same language as contemporary poetry.

My first and last love are songs. I was all over the place. Late at night, my dad would listen either to country music or the BBC (guess he was all over the place, too). He and my mom would go to sleep with the radio on. I remember lying in bed and hearing the young Dolly Parton sing “Jolene,” and thinking I had never heard a voice or song like that except when someone would sing a snippet of an Irish ballad (not the tin pan alley Irish songs). Even then, to hear Parton without all the hair and make up was to hear a great singer/song writer. I thought she had raven hair down to her butt, and looked like the actress Barbara Hershey, so I was shocked when I first saw her. I heard her long before I saw her, and I would put faces to all the songs. Anyway, here goes.

Allison Krauss does justice by this great song. Mindy Smith ain’t bad either, but you can tell Allison and Dolly have that same high quivering thing goin on that makes for a great country voice.

“All the Things You Are” is a great song, and here it is performed by one of the greatest artists in history–Thelonius Monk. Monk, to me, was vital . I heard “Jolene” at 15, and Monk a little later, but when I heard him, I played him over and over–and he was in my head when I walked to the store. He made me weird in the all the best ways.

I had ADHD real bad as a kid and no one diagnosed it. I was weird and was mocked out a lot for being so. Monk was one of the places I could go where I didn’t have to put up with people’s snide bullshit–one of the best places.

I first saw Arlo Guthrie perform on PBS. I was maybe the only kid in my neighborhood who watched PBS. Glad I did. I didn’t know his father’s work, then I read “Bound For Glory”–amazing book.

The folk songs jived with what I heard from Jesus every Sunday at Mass. I could never be on the side of success after that. It’s a lie that hurts millions and in the name of what?

I love this song. It always chills me to the bone. This is a beautiful version.

Took a long time to find her. Glad I did.

Elizabeth Cotten was in her 90s when she picked like this. Amazing.

It’s not how pretty the voice is, but how real, and how much it wants to help the song be the song it was meant to be. Elizabeth Cotten did this. Her pickin’ was ragtime style. She was born in 1892. This was done in the 70s.

My dad would sing this to me when I was a kid.

He got typed by Hee Haw, but Buck Owens was one of the inventors of the Bakersfield sound– a la Merle Haggard.

Another song I knew well as a little kid.

When I’m asked about poetry in Chicago, I’m inclined to reply with the old Quaker response: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But, all I really mean is that Chicago is distinct in its poetics because there is no system, no unifying center that explains its existence.

Chaos is the key to understanding how Chicago’s poets function. We don’t have a school here, nor a consistent, essential aesthetic. As a geographical center of the country, Chicago inevitably absorbs everything outside and assimilates the characteristics of visitors and the new locals.

Some are produced by MFA programs and the academy. Others still listen for Spicer-ian Martians are trying to communicate through us. And still, there are those who radiate in between. Either way, poetry is occurring here.

Whether at Danny’s Pub, Myopic Books, an obscure performance space in Humboldt Park, or a small dingy bar with a busted microphone and our third scotch and soda, we are drifting and crashing. But not indiscriminately. We are fine with chaos. Our canon is illimitable. It’s our impulse to constantly add, never to subtract. Poetry in Chicago is not something stable. We are a melting commune. Most of us are, as the Gospel of Thomas declares, passers-by. Constant travelers dripping ink onto the concrete of first and only editions, our solitary iterations now rare treasures to be found in the racks and corridors of the countless independent bookstores. No, you can’t count on us.

We are a lonely city in a way others aren’t. I’ve already mentioned there is no school. Chicago poets operate more in cliques than in a over-arching school. And these cliques are fluid. The cliques are often determined by identifying precedents and transforming/blending the aesthetics of the past avant-gardists and the projective politics of Now. We are bastard children of everything past, present, and future.

Facebook, needless to say, has provided a lot of networking for poets in the city. Since there are several venues with different aesthetic concerns, and various locations, it seems necessary to use such an electronic forum to expand the communication between poets and their performative space. I moved here in 2009 and the first place I found online was Myopic Books. I kept up with the schedule waiting for a familiar name. Michael Bernstein was the first in line. Although we hadn’t met personally yet, he’d published a few poems in his magazine Pinstripe Fedora that would go on to be included in my first chapbook some months later. I had to meet the man.

I showed up at Myopic Books around 6:30. I wanted to be able to exchange a few live words with Bernstein. Of course, working off profile pictures is a dubious way to identify someone. I made a lucky guess and did get to speak with Michael a little. Pleasantries, mostly. It’s difficult to move beyond those when you’re relationship with someone is completely defined by the Web. The reader before him was Nick Demske, a Wisconsin-ite who makes frequent visits to Chicago. Nick Demske, his award-winning book from Fence Press, had not been published yet and I’d never heard of him. Demske’s lines were long and acrobatic, bending the boundaries between cultural obscenity and flowing lyricism. Bernstein’s were short, terse, and filled with surreal dread. Both poets explode with infinite reference and anxious projection. The diversity of the reading is a trademark element of events at Myopic. You go to see one poet you know and end up hearing one or two you don’t, reaping the benefits of curious participation. One is tempted to make comparisons, but any comparison I could make doesn’t quite fit, since Myopic seems to be synonymous with “unique in its own world and vision.”

And yet I digress, this is the night where my career as a poet changed. The curator of Myopic, Larry Sawyer, is truly a committed veteran of poetry in this city if there is such a thing. He overheard my name after the reading and called out:

“I heard the name ‘Connor.’ Is he here?”

I raised my hand.

“I’ll answer your e-mail this week.” He was in a rush, but I knew he was genuine.

Weeks later, I read alongside Philip Jenks.

Larry’s commitment to poetry is unparalleled in any scene. After my initial email, he invited me to read four times, even inviting me to host one reading. I reviewed his book, Unable to Fully California in Another Chicago Magazine. He exposed me to the depths of surrealism and showed me the limits of our own language as a vehicle of expression. For Larry, poetry is not a method of egotism, but a explosion of voices that can be organized into a revolutionary diction. Larry doesn’t force his poems onto a soapbox, but realizes Walter Benjamin’s conception of surrealism as the disruption of bourgeois logic as poetry’s true revolutionary potential.

Larry Sawyer showed me that the tradition of Myopic Books reading series was a long one. He had and has been involved for over a decade and has had poets of varying fame to read. Ron Silliman, Eileen Myles, Tony Triglio, David Trinidad, Gabriel Gudding, Bernadette Mayer, et al.; you name it, they’ve been there. And yet, he let us newbies read, those of us hopefuls who want to be poets. Myopic Books is certainly a go-to spot for me when it comes to poetry readings. Poetry to Larry Sawyer is not a question of achievement, but commitment. If there is a committed, centered Chicago poet, it is Larry. As a curator and promoter, he brings the audience’s focus into a special, intimate poetic communal experience.

At any reading in Chicago, it’s not likely that you’ll see two poets of an identical ilk reading in one night. It’s not intentional, but a poetry reading in Chicago is almost destined for diversity. This what makes poetry in Chicago so exhilarating and overwhelming, our multi-vocal drive. This is our unconscious focus, our journey without a destination.

Let’s move up to March—I believe—of 2011. Eileen Myles was here to promote Inferno, and Ed Roberson was the co-reader. The crowd is spread between the bar and dark back room cushions. In this dimly lit room, most of us on our second beer, second shot. I was on my third scotch thinking of invectives against Illinois smoking laws, watching luminous figures appear in the doorway. The readings at Danny’s are always scheduled at 7:30 but they rarely begin before 9. People linger into the increasingly packed crowd.

Roberson was first. His reading was dignified and still, clear and quiet, well-spoken and a little hard to hear. Contrast with NYC’s Myles, a poet whose work is clearly meant to be heard as well as read. In both Ed and Eileen’s cases, there was a sense of throbbing in the audience, throbbing from silence, then throbbing from the fascination of the New England-accented projection of poetic autobiography. The energy infinitely builds and explodes into fiery applause.

(On a side note: I bought Eileen’s new book and she signed it, misspelling my name in a way that has never felt so pleasant.)

Elsewhere, Chicago poets tend to find themselves in positions where they perform alongside musicians and other types of performance art. Like anywhere, we have to contend with the fact that many people find poetry readings fairly boring. In the latter part of summer 2011, I was on the road with Edwin Perry, JS Makkos, and Joseph Bienvenu, all of whom have had intimate connections with Chicago. Our final stop on our reading tour (Calendar of the Spectral was the title) was at the underground hit loft Ball Hall. I do confess, if you’re looking for a place where “art” is happening, stop by this space at your first possible convenience.

This reading was special in many ways. For one, it was the last reading we did as a group on the tour. Makkos and Bienvenu would go on to do one last reading in Detroit while I and Perry had to split off. Perry to plan a tour with his band and I to fulfill teaching duties for a local Rogers Park summer school session. I had driven back from Cleveland alone to attend a faculty meeting. After a week and a half in a car together, we had a couple of days off from each other. When I arrived at Ball Hall, it was the first time I had been there. It was my understanding that my three counterparts had all experienced this strange little society on several occasions before. My experience with the Chicago poetry community was limited mostly to bookstores, bars, and the occasional art gallery. Throughout the tour, however, bookstores were a rarity in our choices of venue. We had almost exclusively read in bars and self-curated performance spaces.

Walking into Ball Hall the first time, I already knew this would be even more different than our past experiences. This was partly because I lived so close to this place and didn’t even know it existed. Sure, the art spaces on the East Coast were singular, strange, dreamlike communes of the summer, but this was local. This was personal.

This reading was very special because it may very well have been our largest crowd since Boston and was the second to final reading we did together. The reputation of Ball Hall as an epicenter of artistic performance alone had drawn disillusioned and creative youth of all ages to come see what we had produced, what we had to perform.

The highlight of the evening was our reading of a four-voice poem that we had composed on the road. When I say “on the road,” I mean that we actually wrote this poem while driving. Since I drove at least 90 per cent of the tour, I dictated my lines while I was driving. The first few performances of this poem were a few steps above disastrous, but this time a harmony shone through that we hadn’t seen yet. It was a Dada/Flarf coherence of goofiness and collision in which each of our distinct voices crashed, joked and, ultimately, cohered. Our time apart had given this poem a new life. Time does not finish a poem, but the temporal silence of its voices does allow for its organic growth. The originally Flarf-y humor of four voices shouting “fucking” in Reich-ian unison lost its humor and instead took on the memorial frustration of our lives together, however short that life was.

Our stretch does not stop with the city limits; we take advantage of our geography. We are inclusive of the suburbs, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan as well. Michael Czyzniejewski still travels into Chicago from Bowling Green to serve beer at Cubs games, and Bill Allegrezza still edits Moria. Lake Forest College is also a hotbed of innovative writing; Joshua Corey, Robert Archambeau and Davis Schneiderman still maintain the northern part of the state as a literary stronghold, with the college hosting a fantastic literary festival, as well as running the excellent &Now Press. Go just about a half hour further north and you’d be in Racine, where Fence Prize-winner Nick Demske runs the BONK! performance series at the local library, featuring not only great Chicago poets and artists but performers from all over. Francesco Levato founded a workshop group in 2011 called the Chicago School of Poetics, which offers a diverse array of courses and faculty devoted to the growth of poetry in the city. Yet, despite that, a consistent aesthetic will never emerge. Rather, new aesthetics will branch out infinitely, unlimited by any dogmatic constraint.

This is our strength, our boast. The visitors can’t help but see the schizophrenic variety of what it is to be a poet in this city. Our poetics of place are our relinquishment of a center, the lack of an essential location. We are the poets of many faces, bringers of both syntactic revolution and passive boredom, gazers between the silence of the pages’ white spaces among the monoliths of our piercing architecture. And yet, this is only a brief, highly selective description of what happens here. I’ve left out so much, but can only hope this has sparked your curiosity. So the chilled streets call to the arriving, curious traveler: Beware, Welcome, Look.

One of the first readings I ever did was in 1982 at the Baron Art center in Woodbridge. This was a good seven years before I became a host there, and Edie Eustace, one of the best friends poets ever had, booked me as “Poetic whimsy at the piano.” I did my own small version of a vaudeville show–what I had been doing all my life when my family was still alive: some funny songs, some straight free verse poems, a couple of raunchy rhymed poems, and a couple of neo-classical bits on the piano, instrumentals that I’d composed–everything but ballet and a dog show. In between numbers I spoke some anecdotes, talked to the crowd. It was my natural way of performing. This approach considered the presence of the audience and myself as an entertainer as sacred–not the individual poems, not the piano pieces that ranged from classical to blues, to novelty songs–but the experience of being present in a room in which I got to do what I do. I was able to use all the talents I had: storytelling, witness, music, and I did it as a thirty minute act.

It went over well. I had a packed house. Edie was a smart lady. She knew how to use me. I also played guitar and harmonica, and as I recall, I did dance around a bit with my harmonica–a funny sort of caper. I sang a selection from a musical comedy version of Sartre’s “No Exit,” which I pretended to be writing. The song named the situation of the three characters in hell. It was called “I’m in love with the girl who’s in love with the girl who’s in love with me.” It went like this (first couple verses):

I’m in love with the girl who’s in love
with the girl who’s in love with me!
This triangle’s perverse and perhaps even worse
as the sides of it don’t agree!
When we go out on the town and about
we are all three in great despair
for I care for the one who cares for
the one for whom I don’t care.
Menage A Tois! Might be what hits the spot!
But I’m only hot for the one who is hot
for the one who is hot for me
and for whom I am not!

Doing Sartre as a musical comedy was fun. I capered about the stage. I raised my arms in a mock waltz. I did what I was born to do: make a fool of myself. This week in my 380, I had occasion to perform the song again, and almost thirty years after that Baron reading, my students were laughing hard, and applauding when I’d finished. It’s good shtick and a good comic travesty on the existentialists. I love to do things like this as much as I love to write free verse poems. Unfortunately, there is no time or place or venue to do this anymore. First, poets want to be taken seriously–one of the things I hate them for. This includes slammers with their endless issue oriented verse. Ok. Be taken seriously, but it is much more of an art to flow through the different registers of emotion than to be forever stuck on the sharp prongs of one’s self- piety. It is much more refreshing to not always be the hero/ ego of your own fucking “art.”

Over the years, I have had a few chances to do what I really love–very few. I sneak a song in here or there. I once got through to a high school audience by doing Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not Stop for Death” as a slow, grinding blues song. All you need to do is repeat the first line. Sure, there are interdisciplinary art events, but even the name gives me pause and makes me cringe. Couldn’t they call it “mutt art?” That’s what it is! A little of this and a little of that. People call it cross or multi- genre performance. I call it vaudeville. I love vaudeville. I was raised before the death of variety shows, and I have never forgotten how much more alive I feel when I am not trapped in one form of art or another, but get to see how they all blend or clash. Long before the postmodernists declared the death of high and low art, vaudeville had already done so. On the Vaudeville circuit, a celebrity might tell anecdotes, a classical violinist might play a wonderful impromptu, a comic act might do a skit, followed by an aria from Mozart. It was divine madness, and these acts were honed and perfected over many years. This was long before we made academic careers out of analyzing pop culture through the rigorous jargon of critical theory.

This is what I knew about myself: I could write songs, and compose decent melodies. I was not a concert pianist by any stretch of the imagination, but I can put a song or a musical bit over fairly well. I am not a trained comic, or stand up, but I can be human in front of an audience, and I learned from my family how to tell a decent story. I am not an MFA trained poet, but I have read thousands of poems, have taught myself all the forms, have memorized at least a couple hundred poems, have learned the history of poetry, know prosody, and I can hold my own in the different styles. I am not a specialist in any one field of art. God knows I cannot dance, but I can do fairly good travesties of dancing. I have an expressive, though limited singing voice (actually I have a two and a half octave range when I’m not smoking, but I am not a trained singer) It is called being human. We think of hams as conceited, but a man who goes into the world trying to make something come alive is not a ham. A ham is someone who does not notice anyone else’s talent. I have never over read. I have never taken up more than my time on stage. And I have never cared if someone put me first or last.

I am a “mutt,” a cut up, a clown. Clowns are trained to run the emotional registers from funny to sad, from sublime to raunchy. Clowns believe that these mixed registers provide the ontological truth of existing. Clowns are morally adverse to the pure-bred. They are the only thing standing between people and purges, between the human and the human tendency to seek perfection to the point of slaughter. Clowns are the only true challenge to authority–not the revolutionaries, not the anti-this or that who, most of the time, are saying “I want the power,” but to authority. They tweak the nose of power itself, they show it for what it is: pathetic, evil, inhuman, the worst stain on our hearts. Clowns are not comic, but something more frightening and deeper. Clowns are the sacrifice of the high Mass, which is a solemn travesty, which is mutt, which is broken, which is vaudeville show in which very proper people come to watch a God be improperly slaughtered and then eat him (or her if you want me to be politically correct). The best clowns were the first and will be last to expose the lie of high or low art. They come to kill you and then raise you from the dead. To me, the motley is sacred, and it was always grounded in a sacred ritual of being, but it is not truly encouraged or allowed on the poetry scene. There are too many purists in poetry–and not just the academics. I saw it on the slam scene, too. It’s even worse in slam because they are all pretending to be communal and lowly while they take themselves way too seriously. It made me want to punch the mother fuckers out–all that fake love.

I stopped doing my shtick for the most part because I almost always feature with another poet, and some of them felt upstaged. I learned to muzzle my instincts, and stick to the program, but it cost me my joy. I would not sing during a reading because I knew I’d get clobbered for it. I would not joke, or cut up, or do a light verse ditty because, chances are, if it went over with the audience, some smug asshole would give me a left-handed compliment like: “You should do stand up.”

My “Art,” if it exists at all, exists as a belief in presence. Presence differs from entertainment in so far as it does not rule out the possibility of a deeper ontology. Judy Garland was present. Frank Sinatra was present. Lady Gaga has presence. There is something in presence that goes beyond mere entertainment, but also beyond perfection. Blake said “exuberance is beauty.” That’s the best quote I know on what I am trying to get at. You work hard at your act, but that work should not get in the way of presence–ever.

I am 53 years old and live in a time of reality television and Huxley’s Brave New World coming true. Camp and kitsch, and schlock, and self-help have lost their punch because there is no straight or normative culture to vamp or deconstruct anymore. This corporate culture deconstructs itself and, thereby, retains its power. It flies up its own asshole, and comes out the other end the same. When us triumphs over them, then us is them, and it needs to be attacked. Camp, kitsch, and the aesthetics of insignificance are the prevailing cultural norms. They are the norms which mean sincerity and ontology are the counter-statements: a seriousness that challenges the postmodern cliché of everything being leveled. Here, I seem to be contradicting myself since postmodernism prides itself on deconstructing levels, and being mixed register, but it has become authoritarian in its debunkings, in its fundamentalist “uncertainties.” It lacks kindness, and the generosity of true scorn. True scorn feigns disengagement. It uses numbness as a weapon to attack lies. It does not believe its own myth of snide. It does not make non-presence its chief aim. I find that I am bored for the first time in my life–bored with poetry, bored with art, bored with music. There are too many “knowing” people. No one is stupid with awe or pleasure, and any artist worth a damn knows that “stupidity” is as much a virtue as intelligence–as in instinct, as in intuition, as in being willing to fall on one’s ass, as in being unconscious of one’s effects, as in being unaware of one’s self.

I wish I could do what I really do: sing a song, recite a poem, tell a story, recite another poem, break out into dance or silliness, get serious, kill as many people as Hamlet, offer myself up in the high mass of my being–truly enact a ritual of presence, but I am limited by the expected forms. Edie gave me life when she let me be poetic whimsy at the piano. But even then, a couple poet friends of mine who thought they were looking out for my best interests said: “Joe, you’re a talented if raw poet… why make a fool of yourself?” I was in my early twenties. I figured they knew better than me. I was wrong. I should have answered: “I don’t have to make a fool of myself; I’m already a fool!” They could not understand what Edie understood, perhaps because she was older and could remember the golden age of American entertainment when vaudeville was kept alive in night club acts, and Marx brothers movies, and on variety shows. She knew what my real art was: a little of this and a little of that, and always aimed at the folks in Peoria–whatever in the human being truly goes beyond categorical pigeon holing. When I made someone laugh with a song, and then came back at them with a serious elegy, I was enacting their full emotional register as well as my own. It was a ceremony–an act. I should not have been made to feel ashamed of it. In later years, Deborah LaVeglia and Adele Kenny have often let me do my act, and much thanks to them, but it becomes harder because the professional surge in workshops and MFA programs, the continued bias towards the specialized, and the reduction of poetry to the either/or of performance or page has made vaudeville and presence a dubious value. I often dreamed of doing a sort of one or two hour act in which I would invite others up to do a bit, and run the full registers. But there is little market for this–and no memory of how enjoyable it could be. I would love to do something with Sweet Sue Terry, but I don’t have the money or the backing. I’d love to have a really good Jazz solo, and then combine a poem with a dance, and then tell some stories in between the acts, and truly create a ritual of being, but I’m getting old and there are people in power who don’t want to be shown up, or who have very lofty ideas of taste (taste can be a real drag). Non-feeing is the prevailing norm, and emotions are seen as questionable. Meaning is questionable. Fellow feeling is questionable. I’m not a sociopath. German decadence and French ennui, and American hipsters always bored me–for the most part. Their fascination with cruelty seemed redundant. Life is cruel enough without having to stylize it (though I understand the artistic need to stylize). I’m not into intellectual or aesthetic styles of S &M. It makes me sleepy. I mean I liked German decadence if it came with good legs, and French ennui had nice cheek bones, and knew how to smoke a cigarette, and American hipsters perfected the cues of be-bop and culturally savvy stand ups who assured us we were the knowing ones, and the culture was stupid, but, after a while, I grow weary of Bogart and pine for Cagney–the song and dance man. I don’t feel interested enough in poetry anymore to write it. I was never interested in poetry proper anyway. I was interested in poetry improper. As for songs, I can lose myself in song for hours in my living room, play to my ghosts, do Beethoven and follow it with Carole King, and I don’t need to enter the indie world of artistic blah. I was born in the wrong era. I spend my free time these days Googling dolphins, or old fast food franchises, or baseball, or songs. I am doing time. It is hard to believe in something that doesn’t believe in you.

Yesterday, I did a high school festival for the Dodge. Dodge is great in that it doesn’t force you to do the usual workshops. I talked to the students. We laughed and joked, and some people told me I had moved them but I couldn’t even remember what I had said because I was in the moment. I got paid 350 bucks, and spent two hundred of that in gas and hotels, but it was worth it. I didn’t read one poem in the classes. When the time came to read, I did two poems, and sat down. I feel exhausted by possibilities that will never come to fruition. I never wanted to read from a book and sit down. Whatever I thought I could do was often hemmed in and limited by gate keepers. All I ever wanted was to be devoured in some sense–to offer myself up on some imagined altar of being “in the moment.” Perhaps when the grid collapses, I’ll get my chance. I just hope they let me play the piano first.

In part one, I tried to enforce the idea that folk art is not necessarily superior to commodified art, and most art that we know and is brought to public consciousness, and endures is a combination, a dance so to speak between the genuine and the packaged, You have to cut the hog up to transport it, and a cut up hog can never be a free ranging pig, but it can give you the full flavor of what people in those parts love and have grown up on concerning the pig that ranged. You need to package the genuine in order to carry it to a new audience. One could make a case that the entire folk music scene from which Dylan, country rock, and long, often self indulgent singer-song writer songs emerged was far more in the category of commodity than folk–even as sacred a character as Woody Guthrie. A true folk artist wouldn’t worry about the purity of what he was doing, and if he can make good money for the people back home, and not be broke, he or she is going to let them cut up the hog–but only so far, and he is going to lament, sooner or later that, in cutting up the hog, they forgot the beauty and intelligence of the pig, and he may even be horrified at what they’ve done to his hog. This is why we have counter movements, and nothing is ever fully agreed upon.

Now the word academic can be taken in many ways. We could look at the glorious work Alan Lomax did, his scholarship in recording field hollers, convict songs, Appalachian music as well as Delta Blues. Instead of cutting up the hog, he did what a good scholar does: attempted to transport it whole, and preserve it so that it might be seen in its fullness and purity. This is scholarship. This is the good thing about Academic: it is work heavy, arduous, develops methods of qualification and research that tries to keep the hog in its full glory. Such scholarship is often brave, even fearless. often, no one understands or sees the value in some Northern Yankee running around the fields, and through the chain gangs in search of a song. No one understands why a scholar might spend thirty years codifying all the variants in the different versions of a single folk song sung mainly by half senile old ladies on their porches. The scholar, in this sense, is no less heroic than Beowulf.. He or she is going up against the dragon of half truths, and full out lies, and rumor, and finding the gem of what is complicated, and incremental and pain staking. This has none of the romance of the philosopher or theorist, none of the sweep. It is a daily, small, relentless contact with what can be recorded, verified, and put towards a body of research. All that said, the scholar works from the myth of purity, so that, for all his or her brave work, the best he or she can produce is a more accurate, far more exacting, far more useful falsehood–a falsehood that is then qualified, and corrected by equally brave and painstaking scholars, all of whom fine tune, and take a tooth brush to a thousand mile desert and start brushing.

God Bless them. For me, there is little as exciting in this life as a conversation with someone who has spent a life time knowing one small thing so well that it has become a world unto itself. Only trouble is, most scholars are terrified to expound and generalize since this is the work of theorists. I would rather talk to a good scholar who was willing to talk, than to a theorist who never fucking shuts up, but good scholars are often bad talkers, and they can be concrete at such a microscopic level that only another scholar knows what the hell they are talking about. I once spent three hours with an expert on 18 century prosody. It was heaven because I knew just enough to understand what he was discoursing on, but this is all too rare. Most of the time a good scholar is a bad theorist–not always, but often, and most theorists, rely on scholars because they aren’t exactly drudge workers. The worst nightmare for both theorists and scholars goes something like this: the scholar has spend 2o years studying the anatomy of a single kind of dinosaur. His research makes a big stir in the community of scholars. It is published in the best journal. It comes out on Yahoo or in the papers as:
“Scientists discover: Dinosaurs had lips!”

This same nightmare haunts theorists who have their whole complex spiel reduced to a single sound byte, and the sound byte is what people remember This is the academic version of: “look what they’ve done to my hog!”

The culprit here is purity on both ends. Purity in terms of the full hog, the free ranging pig, and purity in terms of how the hog is cut up and packaged. I will note four kinds of purity, all of which get us into trouble:

1. The purity of what something “really is.”
2. The purity of essentializing beyond substance.
3. The purity of subtantializing to such a degree that the essential is lost (the part of the elephant that is mistaken for “elephant.”).
4. The purity of correctives (reform, qualification, exceptions).

These four kinds of purity get mixed, and very often reduced to either/or: for example, either slam or academic, either oral or written, either uttered or read, and on and on. Folk art as I define it is not very interested–ever–in purity–until it gets packaged and firmly packaged in the myth of “what it really is.” Then nothing is more purist or snobby. Now let me try to list some of the traits of what I perceive as academic poetry, but I will list them in their laudatory, neutral, and dyslogistic registers:

A. Laudatory: It is poetry which is complex, multi-faceted, employing Empson’s types of ambiguity, more prone to showing than telling, and above all adverse to simplistic “issues.” it is what Barthes called “writerly.” It is highly mannered whether it is going for the decorative or the Zen form of simplicity. It is deliberate and careful not to say anything in an overt or obvious way. When it does say something overt or obvious it is always toward the ironic or the Dadaist.
B. Neutral: it is nuanced, understated, and covert.
C. Dyslogistic: It says nothing in perfectly wrought and well crafted lines,, is interesting only to its fellow adherents, is too often a code language for the MFA program the poet attended, and is snobbish, boring, and not at all interested in any audience other than the major small press magazines. It hates the idea of being entertaining, or of engaging a general audience, and it deals with nothing important. It is apolitical, amoral, and purposely read in as boring and dead pan a way as possible.

I am giving the three registers to get at different attitudes in terms of what people mean by academic poetry. Because “academic” has somehow become a pejorative, Those whose attitude is laudatory or neutral will just consider this sort of page poetry not to be academic, but to be true poetry, and all else is suspect and false. Those whose attitude is in the dyslogistic register, will see all nuanced and complex poetry as false and bogus (I know academics who see it that way!)Sadly, these folks are just as snobbish in their way as the supposed “academic” poetry they attack. Nuff said at the moment.

Other useful and informed falsehoods:
A. The academic purposely reads his or her poetry in a neutral, fully reading voice so as never to be confused with performing the poem.
B. The academic plays it safe, never curses, never uses mixed registers of speech, seldom pulls his nomenclature and word choice from different sources. if he or she does use the language of the volk, it is always in a measured and consistent way. Academic poets never mix registers because then they lose their academic sound. They always place semiotics above the work.
C. Academic poetry is fed, promoted, and preserved by art funding and university support and, left to fend on an open market, it could never survive. It is on permanent life support.

I think I have noted some of the basic ideas of what constitutes academic poetry. If put into bi-polar relationship with slam, it is defined by what slam ain’t. My purpose here is to skip all this usual stuff, and re-define academic poetry as commodity art. as such, it can produce works of lasting merit, great poems–but within the limits of its packaging. Whenever that package is challenged and loosened, this usually indicates that some force outside the package has been working on it, and making it looser. it is being infected by the impurity of what I define as folk art, but by what might better be called the force of the vital and the necessary. Systems are not destroyed so much by being challenged (since usually, the challenge is internecine–a fight between those on the inside). Systems are destroyed by radical obedience. A system is a form of desire. Desire dies when it is fulfilled. A system that becomes too completely what it is, becomes fulfilled and dies the natural death of fruition. All systems, just as all life rises from decay, and death. The rank stink of fertilizer is upon every systematic root. This is true of academic poetry and it is true of slam. All evolves toward fulfillment (or reduction), and the system that becomes aware of itself as a form seeks not to die. In order not to die it must have an opposition, an enemy against by which its absolute fulfillment is thwarted and by which it defines itself. As long as we have a tug of war, neither end can die, but if that tug creates the intimacy of opposition (Holderin’s beautiful phrase) than each system can be perpetuated, usually under new names. Commodity art is all about names and semiotics. It must look, smell, taste, sound, and feel like academic poetry in order to be academic poetry–the slavery of the packaged.

Same for slam. When a new element is introduced, people force it into the mold. By doing so they can change the mold without suffering the crisis of difference. Before this happens, the one who introduces a new element will not be perceived as doing so. They will usually be disparaged or ignored by both ends of the tug of war–seen as an anomaly, neither fish nor fowl, just wrong. Those who consciously challenge a system will be understood within the terms of challenge. This is not true folk. Folk does not challenge. it obeys some inner necessity and, by doing so, remains vital, invisible. No sooner is it seen as this or that than it stops being vital and becomes packaged. We can only be willfully “open.” We are never so open except in theory. Human beings package things and put them into categories no matter how post-modernist they pretend to be. We seek the portable. Packaging makes a thing portable. So commodity is not always evil–just limiting by its very definition. I define both slam and academic poetry as commodity art. They are limiting. Neither can ever be the vital force because the vital goes unseen and unknown through the veins of the scene. It moves as the blood through all things that would not impede its flow. Spoken word was motley and large enough, and undefined enough to allow the force of the vital. Academia does not allow for a good, rhetorical, overt rabble rousing poem and this is regrettable. at the same time, I knew people on the spoken word scene who wrote poems like Creeley or Oppen, and read them as such. I knew people who did shtick. It was wide open. Being an old man I know nothing is allowed to remain wide open. it will bleed out and be butchered. Slam does not allow for Oppen or Creeley and this is unfortunate, Academic and slam poetry are not friends of the vital. The vital will come to these camps only by cross breeding, or by the restrictions being so perfectly adhered to that they die as a result of being fulfilled. Obedience, which unlike conformity, is ferocious and dynamic ,will always destroy what it obeys by fulfilling the law. The absolute perfect slam poem or academic poem belongs neither to slam or academic poetry: it belongs to the spoken or written word and allows both systems to die into freedom from the law. My qualms with both academic and slam are situational. Before such great and unseen moments of perfect obedience, both slam and academic poetry restrict and limit the life of the vital.

As a teacher, my job is to inform my students of as many schools as possible , both their virtues and limtations, so that, choosing what they must obey, they destroy all schools and allow the vital to flow. My motto was always: learn from all schools, be faithful to none. One is not faithful to the law. This is conformity. One fulfills the law. This is necessity or obedience. The inner necessity of art is never a system, cannot be confined to a system, for it is longing and desire itself. My definition of academic is that which would commodify, reduce, and package, and make its laws of letter superior to the laws of the spirit. Under this definition, slam is not the true opposition of the academic, but another form of the academic. Good work can come of it, but only when it is escapes its commodity, or fulfills it to the point of making change not only neccessary, but inevitable. Slam has changed in the 25 years since it grew as an off shoot of spoken word. Because of its exposure on television, it became more about a look, a set of semiotics. This is horse shit. This is what art comes to destroy.

Slam comes out of spoken word, hip-hop, bar poetry, speechifying, the mongrel mix of the jazz cutting contest and the old gong show (as it has become more a commodity of the universities it has lost the gong show aspect and is beginning to effect a gravitas that disrespects its own origins and plays to the same snobbery as academic poetry). Slam replaced spoken word. Spoken word was never a commodity. It was a true alternative to academic poetry–albeit, with no possibility of making cash or meeting the target market for media (ages 18 to 34, and then you don’t exist). it was done for the sheer hell of doing something different, good, bad, or otherwise, and had a true communal meaning. Slam mimics that communal meaning while being largely pro-clique and power driven. This is the difference between folk art, any kind of true grass roots art and what I’ll call commodity.

Because folk art never strays far from the pub, the fire place, the kitchen, the porch, its forms evolve organically: the packaging is loose at best and allows all sorts of influences to enter and exit in a more natural unpremeditated way. It is based not on expertise, but on a daily life line to the experiences of its locality. Where group expertise is involved (little children exposed to polytonal and microtonal harmonies and rhythms will very easily assimilate them) amazing and complex musical and literary structures can grow from very humble and poor soil. Where individual genius is forged in this same environment, the local legend, the great fiddle player or story teller or bard (or black top hoops player) remains within the community and speaks for it, not above it. Such performers are often packaged by outside forces based on commodity and then we have a merge point between folk art and commodity art. The natural, the root, the raw artists rising from the “primal” is always an artist spoken of in the language of commodity art. He or she is being packaged, limited to a sellable category–a niche. In this respect, the “genuine” is always false. If an artist is truly genuine, no one has to say it, and, if someone says it, commodity is always the background of this utterance. Gatekeepers decide what is “genuine.” They decide that folk music can only be played on acoustic instruments, or it can only use a certain number of chords, or it must deal with certain themes and in certain language. They do this to “identify” and sell. This is never the way of folk. If I had to define true folk instruments it would be: Anything that makes a sound, electric or acoustic, that gives expression, pleasure, and duration to the dirt you stand on, and that you can warp to the needs of the moment.

This definition, then includes the original record player scratchings, and boom boxes as well as beat makings of rap and hip hop culture. Folk is, by necessity, always impure. it steals whatever it needs to steal, and leaves the package loose. If you could still go to a back mountain somewhere, and you brought some classical records with you, the resident musician would be all ears. His eyes would light up. he’d say: that sure is pretty, and, if he could, he’d take something from it–whatever riff was available under his limits, wherever riffs made contact with his dirt. This is how jazz and folk and all music evolved–someone took a little something from wherever they could find it and made it his or her own–with no apologies. Only scholars and businessmen believe in purity and property. Land is not the same as property. Property can be owned from a distance; land has to be worked and stood on.

Spoken word was a folk culture. If you read in a bar and were a cut better than most, you got recognized by your fellow readers–no scores necessary. The feature at a bar was based almost always on local reputation. I consider myself a spoken word poet–not by the definitions of commodity art which would dress spoken word in the drag of its obnoxious gatekeepers (who always get it wrong on purpose) but by how I did my poems: I went to open readings. I waited my turn. I read in the open–one or two poems. People liked it. They asked me to feature. My pay was either a pat on the back or, sometimes, a collection from the hat, or, on rare occasions, 50 bucks. Being a folk artist, I didn’t think it unnecessary to read Wallace Stevens or Neruda or Whitman or any of those guys. No folk artist has to try to be a folk artist by keeping his influences pure. In point of fact, I read such poets almost exclusively, and skipped Bukowski and the so called recognized “heroes” of the spoken word–not because I was a snob, but because that was the ground I stood on. You don’t read what you’re standing on (you’ll bump your head into a tree staring at your shoes). You look toward the horizon. I didn’t think of these poets as sacred cows. They were making pretty music, and where I could, I copped some of their chord changes.

My poems were often stories–sad and funny, very different from what I read, but I’d flavor them up with what I’d seen on the horizon. I was listening to the poets at the bars, too, and learning from them. I had no “standards” except pleasure, and transport, and the motley accident of being curious and an avid reader (with no given assignments). I read Williams the same way I read vampire comics: for pleasure and for the purposes of theft. This is the folk art way, and it survives commodity art even when it is packaged and sold–if it knows what’s good for it. Artists who become “pure” become gatekeepers and jailors, and shit asses. You don’t steal what you have; you steal what you don’t have. I stole the Spanish surrealists, and the modernists, and the contemporary academic poets I liked because I didn’t have those boys and girls. People in bars would try to compliment me by telling me I was like Bukowski (Meaning I was narrative. I have no other relation to Bukowski) or that I was raw (meaning I cursed, but everyone curses in Elizabeth–it’s an art) or meaning I was self taught ( everyone, for your information is self taught. Otherwise, you’re just brain washed).

So this is why I say Spoken word is folk art, and why I say academic and slam poetry is commodity art. Now before you go off thinking I’m saying one is better than the other, let me explain myself: great commodity art is made. It’s whole point is to be good, or, at least, competent, and it often succeeds (though the definitions of what is good or bad are often inaccurate). Great folk art is made, and if it is great, it is bound to be commodified or, at least, commemorated in the minds and hearts and memories of those who knew the local legend–the great man or woman who stood on their dirt and sang for it, but the purpose of folk art is not necessarily to be good. Folk art does not truck much in standards. It is more about doing the thing, and learning it so you can enter. The purpose of folk art is to express what is necessary, and true and particular to that locality and time, and to infect that locality with something different when it needs something different. No one gate keeps there–at least not as official critics or keepers of value. In the folk way, you do what you do, and good or bad, you keep doing it, and no one stops you because no one owns the porch, the kitchen, the field, or the bar except those you’ve known and lived among all your life.

When greatness rises from a place where the point is not to be good, but to do what you do, it is recognized in a different way:

1. Everyone sees that great player or story teller as reflecting their own experience–not as a special commodity to be envied, but as an extension of who they are, and they take pride in him or her, and allow them to get away with less labor or certain eccentricities because they know talent needs some leisure and time to waste.

2. No one cares if that person is on a national stage. This is not star fucking time. It’s like inner city basketball: a local street legend gets talked about as much as an NBA all star in his or her own neighborhood.

Commodity art’s first action then is to define what is “good” and standardize it. It’s chief activity is to narrow by defining and packaging the product. When slam first started out, any kind of spoken word artist could win–short poem, long poem, comedy routine disguised as poem–it didn’t matter. There were rules, but these were basic, and evolved from the typical open: three minutes, don’t hog anyone’s time. Hal Sirowitz could not win a single slam today, but he could win major slams in 1992. Patricia Smith has been so copied and ripped off, and by young slammers who don’t know their history, and don’t even know who Patricia Smith is, and, while they know 100 slammers, they often don’t know a single fucking poet except what they were forced to read in high school. Patricia would still place well, but she wouldn’t win, not because she isn’t great but because she’s not in the mix–the gatekeepers box. She helped make the box, but she ain’t in it.

Slam is a reduction, a commodification of spoken word–a limiting of it for the purpose of commodity. Gone are the hecklers and the different kinds of styles. It has dumped many of the traits of spoken word poets, including the fact that most spoken word poets I knew were very well read, and didn’t just know each other’s work. Like me, they were reading all kinds of literature and using it in their poems. Some were L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets (Boni Joi), others performance artists (Dave Lancet), still others lyrical types, or nature poets, or heavily political (Elliot Katz). It didn’t come down to a formula. Spoken word is a folk art that slam refined, defined, commodified, and killed. There are no bar readings the way there once were–regular readings you can count on every month where the feature and the open readers are in the same ball park, and no official contest is taking place. Features are important. I don’t agree with opens only. That’s soccer mom, everybody is equal falsehood. Poets that put their time in ought to get some propers once in awhile–especially from their local scene. Pretending everyone is on the same level is a lie, but, in folk tradition, the poet rises by public and invisible assent. In true folk tradition, those who excelled were honored–not forced to be just part of the background. They weren’t idolized, but they were loved and given ample room for expressing the best their community had to offer.

Now Slam pays lip service to these traits, but doesn’t really honor them. A slam voice, even a slam body, a def jam mentality now owns this sector that once belonged to spoken word, and there is money and even tenure to be had in slam. For this very reason it must be defined, packaged, and sold as a product.

The universities know slam puts seats in their colleges, and slam is the new academia–the commodified ghost of a folk culture. Great poems come out of slam, but only under the defined limits. You know something is commodified when it is not allowed to flourish outside its own boundaries. Slam is the new academic poetry. it has workshops, coaches, and experts. It confers power and withholds it beyond the secret engines of the folk. This makes me sad. I never became an academic even though I was given a lectureship at a major university. I don’t know how to be an academic. I am not a folk artist by definition, but by accident. Academics refuse to hear any pretty music that isn’t defined by them, and the slammers are fucking just like them. I have no place for any group that refuses to hear music other than their own. They kill art and make it far less dynamic than it could be.

Signs of slams commodity: the agist demographic of 18 to 34 (just like most media) and the emphasis on a look, a style. When this is recognized, there will be senior slam leagues, and everyone will have their fucking niche after they are forced to retire from the 18 to 34 demographic. The money made is not in slamming so much as in touring, and giving workshops–just like academia. There will be slam courses and professors at universities. Spare me the horse shit of slam not being academic. I never had any problem with its unfair judging, or its competition. This was honest dishonesty, and I accept that. What isn’t honest is its pretending to be an alternative to academia. Rigidity and forms of right way and wrong way to slam ARE academic. That’s the very soul of the academic: rules of thumb and theory. That is the very definition of academic.

I think much slam is more competent than the spoken word scene I knew–but it is also more limited and limiting, and the greatness that rises from it won’t stand up because the whole point of commodity art is to make sure only the “standards” stand out. Anyone who does something truly different in slam will get low scores until they can somehow “same” their changes and make the gatekeepers think it was their idea all along. With all this said: I am going to write a full primer for my classes on slam. And it will be a good primer because me and the spoken word artists I knew are the origins of this shit.

On a recent gloriously sunny afternoon, I had the privilege of sitting down to talk over lunch with the poet Anne Winters, author of two critically acclaimed volumes of poetry and several translations.  I was introduced to Ms. Winters’ work in graduate school and, ever since, have been an ardent admirer of her lushly orchestrated, yet intimate and searingly honest poems about the “big issues” that so many contemporary poets seem to shy away from: race, class, poverty, and gender.  Or, more to the point, the intersection of these forces playing out in individual lived experiences, including those of the poet.  Fittingly for a poet raised in New York City and for whom that city serves as muse, subject and mise en scéne, Ms. Winters chose to meet at Saul’s, a Jewish delicatessen incongruously nestled in the heart of Berkeley, CA, where she now resides. Over outsized latkes and steaming bowls of matzo ball soup, we discussed life in Berkeley (it really is paradisal); the joys and pains of translating Homer; the real subject of her poems; opera, French poetry; dinner parties with Elizabeth Bishop; teaching; the allure of distractions for the writer and a great many other subjects.  Unassuming, gentle, and brilliant, Ms. Winters gracefully guided the ship through the waters of High Art, culture and scholarship without making me feel too much like a landlubber.  An abbreviated selection from our discussion below highlights the origins of Ms. Winters’ poetic material and creative process.

One of the first questions I had for Anne was about her writing process–given the layered complexity and scope of almost every one of her published poems, I asked her how long it took to write a “Winters” poem.

Anne: I write slowly… it takes me so long and I am so obsessive.

And your poems have a density and formal perfection that bear the mark of that labor.  Do you write every day?  Or do you have periods where you have bursts of intense activity?

Well, sometimes life has been very good. It’s been very smooth.  You just get out of bed and write.  Especially when I was married and before I had Elizabeth, my daughter.  So I wrote my first book, well my first book I threw out, but I wrote my second book under those circumstances.  And I went on adding to it during the lifetime of my daughter, but after she came she was my first priority in a very conscious way.  I find it easy to understand Elizabeth Bishop’s way of writing.

What is it about her poems that speaks to you?

There is so much latent, and yet, in spite of working so hard, she has this very conversational surface.

Yes, and there is such a strong presence of a voice, a mind filling the poems. I think this is true in your poems as well, though the voice of course is quite different from Bishop’s. In your poems, there is this quality of being at once an individual I, an observer, and yet able to encompass a much larger consciousness.  How do you craft the voice in your poems?

Well, I’ll give you an example.  I wrote a poem about a girl who was killed in a kind of a brothel that was opposite the house where I grew up [“The Street”].  It took me months to figure out who should speak the poem.  In the final draft it was me, but I kept trying other things: my sister Vicky, my friend Charlene, a black girl on the block.  I wrote drafts in all these modes.  It took me a while to figure out who should be talking.  I finally couldn’t settle on anything better than that bay window.

Well, in that poem, there is the  I speaker, but then there are the eyeglasses and the compact. There are all these lenses and mirrors through which that scene is being viewed.

Yes, there is an awful lot going on in that poem….about gender.

Say more about that.

When I was writing that poem, I called my sister, and I said, “I don’t know if you remember it, but there was this girl…,” and she said, “Oh, I’ve remembered that all my life. I never talked about it, except about every ten years, I’d suddenly start talking a blue streak about it and then I couldn’t stop.”  It had been a great trauma to her as to me to see that woman killed so regardlessly and to see the people not helping her and above all to see my father not helping her.

The poem has that beautiful line about that: “from that we learned and learned.”

[...]She’d worked to please the ones inside that house

and now the stiff pageboy lay tumbled–black threads of it
wetted red–her cheek on the place where shoes
walked, dogs stopped–this was what was, other things

what people said.  And to that I must add, by our own stillness most of all
we were taught; from that we learned and learned.

It was a strong education.  That poem is one that gets more objections than any other.  You shouldn’t write about that.  It’s okay to kill women, but it’s not okay to write about it.

What kind of objections do people have?

Well, now the idea that you shouldn’t exploit people who aren’t like you is out there.  You shouldn’t write about poor people who got murdered because you’re exploiting them. In the first place, I don’t think I am, and in the second, it’s much more important to write about it than not to write about it.

I think your poems do what we should do in general, which is not to turn away, but to talk about these things and think about our own implication in them and to do it with a great deal of care.

And respect…and distance.

You have to pick the voice and you have to think a lot about your own distance and, although you don’t write about it unless you’re some other poet than myself, you think about why you’re drawn to [the subject] and what implications it has for you.  Whether [the latter] gets into the poem or not– it’s not necessarily going to get in overtly, but it might get in some other way.

I wanted to ask you about the Dan Chiasson article in Slate a few years ago, particularly about something that he said that I found quite provocative, which is that your work is especially troubled by, or aware of, the fact that art is one of the surpluses created by other people’s labor.

That’s always been the case…But I want to write about actual experiences.  It’s easy to say that, but that is what I want to do.  Any comfortable lifestyle now anywhere really is feeding on the work of people who don’t have a comfortable lifestyle.  That’s the sense in which other people’s labor produces culture.

Does that trouble you in a particular way?  Or is that where the fruitful tension in your work lies?

I don’t exactly know how to answer that.  The fact that our American lifestyle is supported in the ways we know by the labor of others abroad and here, I think that’s obvious in some of my poems about New York.  You know, I am sitting there enjoying the texture of New York and some boy I don’t know is giving me my coffee, but what did it take for that coffee to get to me?  I care a LOT about that.

[...]can I escape morning happiness,
or not savor our fabled “texture” of foreign
and native poverties? (A boy, tied into a greengrocer’s apron,
unplaceable accent, brings out my coffee.) But, no, it says here
the old country’s de-developing due to its mountainous
debt to the First World–that’s Broadway, my cafe
and my table[...]

I don’t think art makes anything worse.  Poetry means you’re writing about the world, in my case, and I think it’s good to write about the world.  And the worse things are, the more important it is to write about them.  And if you can make a poem out of them…you know, it’s not possible for other people.

It’s true, poetry doesn’t seem to do harm, but I wonder if it can do good.  Do you think it can?

I don’t know.  It can give pleasure to people.  I don’t know if it can change things.

When you read Villon, he opens up a whole world that most French poets didn’t do.  You know, Villon is writing about vagabonds, thieves, crooks.  Like his Balade des Pendus–who else could write a poem about that?  I don’t think one extra person has been hanged because he wrote about that!  My life has now carried me to a point where I am part of the middle class and therefore I much more conscious of what you were just talking about.

Going back to gender, it seems there is a strong connection between gender and class in your poems.   

Well my mother and my father were both extreme socialists.  When I was living with them I didn’t just experience what I experienced, I was informed by their ideas.  And I realize now how much the work of that working world that we were talking about is done by women.  And always has been.  You know no one has ever asked me about it or mentioned it, but I think the way women have to live is very much a subject of mine.  When I lived in my father’s house I remember that I would see a lot of people going to work at the same time that everyone else was coming home from work.  You know, the women were going out to clean the offices on Wall Street. I remember I was reading Charles Kinglsey’s The Water Babies.  Well, [in the book] the chimney sweep is getting up very early in the morning and going out when all the working people are going out, and I remember thinking, I’ve gotta go out at that hour.  My dad said you don’t want to get up that early, at 3 o’clock in the morning, but I insisted.  So we got up early; he was very obliging that way.   We went over to 145th and Broadway and all that early world of workers was there, stirring. To me it was just so interesting that all these different lives were going on.  I loved it.  But when I saw all the women going into the subway at 5 o’clock, I think that really bothered me.

Did you spend your entire childhood in Harlem?

No, before I went to Harlem I lived in a kind of orphanage. My parents put me and my sister into this kind of orphanage. So we lived there year round for several years and it was awful.  When I got out of there I was so grateful.  I hadn’t wanted to go to New York, but my father remarried and moved there.   He was in love with Harlem, which is why he settled there.  My particular relationship with the city when I was growing up came from my father’s love particularly. At that time he would go to Harlem jazz clubs. He was particularly a Billie Holiday follower.  I think probably the city would never have become a subject for me if it weren’t for him.

I was re-reading your poems yesterday, and I was struck by a recurring motif.  It’s in the lines from “Two Derelicts” [from The Key to the City]: “the city immeasurably far behind them/so many lightyears out from their last port”.  There are so many images of ships at sea, travelers…

Is that right?  Maybe that’s because I read a lot of Henry James.  He had more sea imagery than any writer I know.

Maybe, but I remember having the feeling when I first lived in NY and was just trying to find my bearings, and I felt a little bit adrift (There we go with the nautical imagery again!)  But I remember feeling like Manhattan was some kind of big ship that we were all on.   I am wondering if one of the impulses behind your poems might be home: where people belong and wanting to find home.

I was having lunch with a poet in New York.  She taught at the University of Maryland but she had kept her tiny apartment in the Village and she said, “When I am in the village I feel enclosed.”  That to me is so obviously true.  I’ve gotten used to Berkeley.  I feel enclosed in Berkeley.  But that was the way New York made me feel.

Do you think New York is a good place to live for a poet?

I doubt if it makes any difference at all.

You have a sort of map in your mind.  Rebecca Goldstein has a novel called The Mind Body Problem  where she talks about the mattering map….When I go back to New York I see that people are mattering about all kinds of different things. New York has so many people with so many different mattering maps.  That’s what makes it like it is.

From what I’ve seen of student work, many are fascinated with fantasy/science fiction and what one of students called nerd consciousness–anything but emotional nuance and or engagement with day to day reality. Since few have an adequate template for poetry on fairies, ghosts, and the like, they tend not to write fantasy poems. This leaves love and slam. Slam poetry seems highly invested in the personal as the political: gender and sexuality, cutting, fat acceptance, suicide, drugs, family dysfunction, all tied together by more and more polyglot metaphors and an overly sold voice that makes “pass the salt” sound far more dramatic than it has any right to be. There is a slam voice that goes up in the register (this is usually done by white boy slammers) and sounds almost like a strangled or thwarted gobble. Usually this is reserved for an apostrophic address to some absent but all pervasive victimizer: America, racism, mom and/or dad, or some ex lover who is almost always brutal and has destroyed our hero/poet so that he might make metaphors between black holes, intergalactic space, and their destructive love. I do not hate spoken word. I hate ham acting. I would describe the current slam scene as anti-nuance. A low key slam poem is virtually impossible. Most slam might be defined as political correctness meets Oprah share session meets William Shatner doing the lyrics to Barry Manilow’s “Weekend in New England” meets dysfunction meets metaphor as defined by the current writing initiative guidelines on effective personal essays. Slam is enormously popular and is now in the process of being co-opted by the Universities. Soon there will be fully tenured slam professors. Universities like money. They can speak about ethics all they want, but cash cows win. End of story.

And so I do not outlaw slam. If slam becomes the new orthodoxy, then highly talented, highly gifted young poets will be forced to fit the mold and, being, forced, will subvert slam and change it from within. At least, I hope so. At any rate, my qualms against slam:

1. It does not allow for the short, short poem (very rarely), and it does not allow for the long poem (very rarely) and is creating a fixed monologue poem (or group poem dynamic) that lasts from two minutes to three minutes ten seconds–an actor’s audition length of time. Slam, when it first appeared, had no set form except the time, but short poems could score high–poems of less than a minute, and acting chops were not required (especially ham acting and over selling). Enforced intensity and energy are as obnoxious as the purposely dead pan and flat free verse of academic poetry They’re the same thing: a fucking lie. When people stopped clapping at academic readings I think they did so in order to distinguish themselves from entertainment. Poetry readings have become more and more boring as a result. It’s like going to church without even having an interesting statue of some tortured saint to look at. I am hoping that academics will learn to respond again, and I am hoping that slam cuts out their fucking pep rally, and allows the real energy of the poem and audience to flourish. I doubt it on both counts.

2. The stakes for wining have become so high that no one takes chances, further creating a uniform and tyrannical sameness. Those who score high, eventually tour and teach and this makes money. Slam is as much about acting chops as poetry. Actually, slam comes as much out of Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior, and the anti-joke, social commentary tradition of post-fifties stand up as it does out of poetry. This is true of spken word as a whole, but slam in particular is about winning over an audience through identification. Everyone is preaching to the converted–a hipster’s pep rally. It’s pisses me off. I almost would prefer a monster truck show.

3. Slam is corporate, fitting the agist demographic of media: the 18 to 34 year old target market. This is in direct contradiction to its foreparent: spoken word. Those who defy this demographic inhabit the back waters of slam obscurity. Spoken word had an understated, but true sense of community. Many of the poets I met on the spoken word scene when I was in my early 20s, were 20 years older than me. I did not grow up in the suburbs and so did not have the same demographic sense of age ghettos, and boundaries. I became close to many of these poets. On the slam scene, community is pushed as an agenda and has all the artificiality of a talk show kiss on the cheek. Phatic closeness scares the shit out of me.

4. Slam abandons a true embracing of difference for a largely virtual advocation of multi-culturalism. Yes, it is multi-race, but each race seems condemned to its semiotic indicators. This is the tyranny of semiotics–identification rather than diversity. This is also a problem in academia, in the whole of American consciousness: identity is insisted upon through semiotics because of brand recognition.

Putting these qualms aside, slam has some potentials I advocate:

1. The return of rhythmic and cadenced speech and rhetoric to an at least equal priority with the image. This includes the re-emergence of extended and Homeric metaphor, anaphora, apostrophic address, hyperbole, decorative speech, and the idea of poetry being an utterance distinct from neutral registers of language. Good poets never abandoned these devices, but mediocre poets could, by the triumph of modified forms of imagism, get away with having tin ears, flat voices, and no sense of rhythm and cadence whatsoever. In short, overly simple prose with line breaks.
2. A return of the body and physical presense to poetry.
3. Energy and intensity as values which are not discouraged.
4. Appeal to an actual audience.

Of course, some of these potentials are tied in with the worst aspects of slam as well, and, truly, spoken word (which is much larger and less limited than slam) was already reviving these aspects of poetry. Slam has merely added commodity and a movement toward uniformity to the proceedings.

UPDATE: Here are some YouTube videos that clarify what I’m talking about above.

Here, the extention of metaphor in this poem and the formula hperbolic slam voice. The next poem is identification slam 101.

This is one of the more famous slam poems. Note Anis does not play the usual slam formula, but there is still a cadence that many slam poets mimic. Listen to how he says the word alone. Shake the dust, the tag line is a quote from the bible.

Note the tremolo in Sierra’s voice. She is doing a persona poem as Dahmer’s mother–a steal from Particia Smith’s persona poems (like Skin Head, from which it derives), and also Cornelius Eady, but note how she over sells the poem. You can find Patrica Smith and Hal Sirowitz on youtube. I’d compare them to what Anne Carson is doing, also Sharon Olds. All available on YouTube.

Psychoanalysis is a good system for those of us that like structure. Even the unconscious, that vast cauldron of libidinal dreams and desires, is structured like a language as Lacan reminds us. After all, there are but three psychical structures in psychoanalysis: the pervert, the psychotic, and the neurotic. I must admit that I find the psychotic the most interesting when considering the artist. It was after all James Joyce, the psychotic artist par excellence that gave Lacan the material to discover that, “the unconscious is the real”, an insight that foregrounded the symptom as both the source of knowledge and ultimately as that which defies interpretation, as it is always caught within the real.[1]

But I don’t wish to look at Joyce. I’m interested in first looking more generally at the idea of the psychotic artist. If we take these structures seriously, we should pause to situate them as a part of all psychical reality. It is only by varying quantity that we experience their structures. Freud makes this claim as early as his work on Dora, the hysteric whom he and Breuer diagnosed in the late nineteenth century.

As Foucault developed towards the end of his great work, Madness and Civilization, following the enlightenment, madness represents a privileged source of truth. To break with the regime of rationality became the source of creative activity, and truth always involves accessing the inverted side of the rational social order. But we ought to be careful not to fetishize the “artist as madman”, wandering adrift yet in touch with the invisible forces of nature, in touch with some form of truth that is inaccessible. After all, truth has “the structure of fiction” for Lacan, and as such, any interpretation must ultimately be a construction out of the repressed core of the subject’s symptom, which is the source of all knowledge. Of course the mad artist has had their day (Artaud, Andre Gide, Jack Kerouac, Nietzsche).

At the outset, it’s important to distinguish the neurotic artist from the psychotic artist. At some point, I want to generate a list of psychotic and neurotic artists. Of course to statically situate an artist as either psychotic or neurotic is misleading: many exhibit both structures, but I’d assume that it’s fair to suggest that individual poets experience these two structures, not poetic or artistic movements. I want to suggest that the distinction is helpful as it enables us to operationalize some deeper structural tendencies for all artistic production and aesthetic truth, and subjectivity.

The Psychotic and the Neurotic: What’s the Difference?

The neurotic seeks a harmony that does not exclude dissonance, while the neurotic is able to approach dissonance through analytic procedures and discern the disorder in nature, metaphysics, etc. One always writes for the other under neurotic complexes, but under psychoses, one writes for oneself.

The goal of the psychotic artist is to develop an absence of the morbid state, while the neurotic artist approaches their problems psychoanalytically, constantly trying to figure their problems out through others, by creating characters, for example that represent elaborate problems and the solving of those problems in their art. For the psychotic, the subject is usually a closing, not an opening, as we find in the neurotic. The psychotic artist reproduces an inner universe, which is why the surrealists referred to psychotic art as realist. Yet as Lacan comments, the psychotic is unable to produce poetry. We find with one of the most famous and well-studied cases of psychoses, that of the early twentieth century German Judge Daniel Paul Schreber. Schreber’s Memoirs of My Mental Illness was the basis of Freud’s formulation of psychosis as a repressed homosexual desire, and for Lacan, psychosis became a result of strained Oedipal relations.

Hölderlin and Psychosis: Filing the Empty Center

Friederich Hölderlin’s psychosis should be read universally. As the psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche comments in his authoritative text on Hölderlin, Hölderlin and the Question of the Father: “the question whether he is schizophrenic because he is a poet or a poet because he is schizophrenic loses its meaning, if it ever had one”.[2]

Hölderlin emerges as a young poet and novelist in Germany during a period (1790 – 1796) of ripe intellectual and poetic collaboration, entering as he did on the heels of the Sturm und Drang movement. This late Romantic Movement consisted of poets and philosophers in Germany who placed intense emotions and a focus on inner states at the center of their art.

Key to understanding their rejection of the enlightenment’s rationalism was the concept of Bildung, or the desire for an education rooted in experience, beauty, and artistic maturity. Bildung is the tendency to give form, to ripen oneself. Like all German idealists, bildung is a central goal of the artist, and as Hölderlin comments in his novel the Hyperion, it also presents a dialectic that is traceable in individuals and civilizations. Hölderlin’s obsession with this idea of conflating the inner self with society, revealed the way that his schizophrenia would prevent him from completing this dialectic, it would prevent him from completing the fully formed subject of romantic education and maturity.

By looking closely at Hölderlin’s Oedipal object relations, we see that he suffered from a strained libido because of intense pressure he developed through two figures in his young artistic life: Friederich Schiller and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In Oedipal terms, Fichte came to represent the law with his mastery over a perfect metaphysical system, which was the pinnacle of philosophical achievement for the German idealists in pre-French revolution Europe. Hölderlin attended his lectures with great admiration at the precision of his totalizing system of thought. Schiller represents the father for Hölderlin, with his unmatched greatness, poetic achievements, and his ability to go beyond what Fichte was able to achieve in what Hölderlin perceived as an overly rational system of thought.

But Hölderlin placed the law not in Fichte, but in Schiller. Eventually the law (symbolized by Fichte’s metaphysical system) broke down, and Hölderlin fell into what psychobiographer’s refer to as his “Jena depression”. This anxiety of influence built up so intense that he was forced to flee Jena and live with his mother. Jena is a university where he and these figures lived in central Germany. Even though the Jena period gave him access to minds and spirits such as Hegel, Goethe, Schiller, and Fichte, his life was filled with utter despair. This hole in his psychical composition is what Laplanche has referred to as Hölderlin’s “center” – the place of the dead father.

Fleeing Jena and his depression, Hölderlin would fill this empty center in his psychical life in his penetrating novel, Hyperion. This lack of a center is filled over at times in a completely imaginary relation, which is precisely what ends up leading to his schizophrenic outbursts. At other times, Hölderlin was reliant on a dual system between the law and the father (Fichte and Schiller), what we might refer to as good and bad object relations, using Melanie Klein’s concepts. The lack in his center (distance from Schiller) that Hölderlin continually sought to fill over, became the basis of his concept of proximity.

It is this proximity that Hölderlin would develop towards the center that led his artistic creation following his post Jena period, and it enabled Hölderlin to persist without Schiller’s proximity. As he writes his most famous novel, the Hyperion, his schizophrenia developed rapidly. The psychoanalyst Paul Matussek, the space of the empty center involves the absence of any space between the object of anxiety (in this case Schiller) and the imaginary object. Once Hölderlin escapes the proximity to Schiller, his paternal object collapses and he no longer requires the same degree of proximity. Without Schiller, Hölderlin would have to sublimate the absence of the lack.

We can generalize this specific tendency to fill over the lack of the psychical center to the idea, which we find in Harold Bloom, of the anxiety of influence. Once the psychotic artist is able to develop a certain proximity to the absent center, I would argue that a pride of influence replaces the anxiety of influence. The pride of influence refers to the way in which you can enlarge yourself by admitting others into your own conversation in imaginary ways, even though you have distanced yourself from your source of influence, i.e. even though you have distanced yourself from your anxiety.

Hölderlin, lacking an object to fill his center after fleeing Jena and developing distance from Schiller, sought to fill the center with his mother, which eventually grew to replace the position of the father. In his published correspondence with his mother, it’s clear that Hölderlin sought to fill the empty place with the love from his mother, a love that would expand to represent nature, totality, and salvation in the Hyperion. The obsession to fill the center, yet being at peace with the reality that the center can never be filled opens up Hölderlin’s conception of infinity and the unlimited. This desire to fill the center into a totality was of course embodied by Diotima, who becomes the figure in the Hyperion that Hölderlin would use to cover over the lack of the center.

What we find occurring in the proximity to the center is also highly significant for Hölderlin’s work on the Gods. The Gods as they have come to be understood by humanity are, according to Hölderlin, “another humanity by which humanity devotes itself”, and as such, Gods are invented in order to escape from what is too difficult for man to think – its own contingency in the universe. This inability to think contingency is, one might suggest, the inability for humanity writ large to think the center.

Yet, it was also the twilight and darkness that nature (the mother) aroused in Hölderlin, a darkness that he refused to walk away from in his writing. This passage from the “Thalia Fragment” is telling of the proximity that Hölderlin suffered from in his writing:

Then, one day recently, I saw a boy lying by the roadside. His mother, who was watching, had carefully spread a covering over him, so that he should sleep in soft shadow and not be dazzled by the sun, But the boy did not want to stay there and tore off the covering, and I saw how he tried to look at the friendly light and tried again and again, until his eyes smarted and, weeping, he turned his face to the earth. Poor boy, I thought, others fare no better; I myself almost resolved to desist from this audacious curiosity. But I cannot, I must not! It must out, the great secret that will give me life or death.

This passage shows the conflict of the empty center and the merging of the symbol of the mother enveloping it with that of nature, and the casting of the night all the while refusing to succumb to the tragedy of what it portends.

 



[1] Thurston, Luke. Re-inventing the Symptom. In the Wake of Interpretation: “The Letter! The Litter!”  Other Press, New York, 2002.

[2] Laplanche, Jean. Hölderlin and the Question of the Father. ELs Editions Publishing, 2007 Pg. 118.

Three poets name their favorite books and poems from the 2011.

b bearhart

1. Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas (UAPress) edited by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
Indigenous Americas. Nuff said. (It’s a poet’s wet dream. Can I say that? Cause I just did.)

2. Mad for Meat (Salmon Poetry) by Kevin Simmonds
This collection is honest and beautiful. No frills or tricks. Simply fantastic poems by a very talented human.

3. “En Route to Bangladesh, Another Crisis of Faith” by Tarfia Faizullah
Thank god for poet friends. So many people linked this poem on social networking sites. I love the way this poem builds through sound.

4. “The Blue Dress in Mother’s Closet” by Saeed Jones
Who is this dude?! This poem is brilliant. Read it.

5. “Yard Sale” by Melissa Jones
This poem is not like my other picks. Or maybe it is and I’m not getting the connection. I like the jarring nature of this poem. It felt like I was reading two poems fighting. And I enjoyed that.

(See and hear b bearhart’s own poem here.)

Alexander Long

1. The Insomniac’s Weather Report by Jessica Goodfellow
In The Insomniac’s Weather Report, we are introduced to Jessica Goodfellow’s method in which the subsequent image or idea pushes the image or idea that preceded it in surprising yet inevitable ways. It’s as though Goodfellow is, at times, entrenched in a game of high-stakes poker against herself, and the ante is steadily raised from image to line to stanza to poem to book until someone wins (we, the readers) and someone loses (she, the poet). And so, the poet clears the table and begins again “by learning the 10,000 ways/ to spell water”.

2. White Shirt by Christopher Buckley
In this, his eighteenth, book, Buckley mines material that readers of his work may initially find familiar: childhood, The Pacific Ocean, the aftershocks of a Catholic upbringing, homage to poets who matter to him. But what may first appear to be nostalgia is actually a confrontation with not just the past but the present, and how the future influences them both. White Shirt is evidence of a poet’s resilience giving way to an almost pure music.

3. Bright Body by Aliki Barnstone
Pastoral, political, erotic, maternal, measured, candid, and always lucent, Barnstone’s seventh book accomplishes something I thought impossible: she makes even Las Vegas gleam with classic beauty, a place where such beauty runs far beneath the surface of glitzy tawdry…as long as the observations are Barnstone’s. Mothers and daughters reveal the brightest light in these poems.

4. Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels by Kevin Young
This book has, rightly, received a good amount of press, most of it well done. I won’t repeat what others have said here explicitly. But I will say what’s obviously been implied: if you are an American and if you don’t know your history (I realize I’m dangerously close to being redundant in that statement), get this book. The Amistad narrative is as American as any of the other so-called feel-good narratives spoonfed to us since grade school.

5. Clean by Kate Northrop
Northrop’s poems have always struck me as strange, beautifully strange, the way angels must appear to us as someone/something strange…at first. I’ve been reading Northrop’s poems for nearly half my life now, and Clean shows me, again, how lucid her vision is, how honed her craft has become.

Jonterri Gadson

1. “Antilamentation” by Dorianne Laux
The way this poem is both specific and universal excited me. It’s a reminder that nothing is a waste of time, there are no mistakes, and that–one day–the pain will be worth it. Well, at the very least, this poem makes those things seem true. This is a poem worth reading every day.

2. “What I Should Have Told the Homeless Man in Cleveland Who Mistook Me for Mary’s Son” by L. Lamar Wilson
This poem explores the complexities of humanity, sexuality, and religion. Yes, all in one. It took me to church in a way I’d never been before and I loved it. Honestly, this poet is worth Google-ing. It was hard for me to choose just one of his poems that stunned me this year.

3. “Midas Passional” by Lisa Russ-Spaar
This poem’s first line gripped, transformed, and transported me. I love how it works both in and out of the context of the Midas myth. The last line makes me want to write.

4. “Found” by Stephanie Levin
I love how this poem gets more and more interesting with every line. It doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of loss.

5. “Ardency” by Kevin Young
This is Kevin Young’s amazing chronicle of the events and people involved with the Amistad slave ship. It’s a full-length poetry collection, but it’s more than just poetry–it is history and it is music and it lent blood and bones to the voices of the Amistad rebels.

(See and hear Jonterri Gadson’s own poem here.)

 

What were your favorite poems & books of 2011? Share them in the comments or on Twitter @thethepoetry.

We can simplify imagery by saying it is that aspect of writing which appeals to the five senses; but that would be incorrect without the qualifier “sensual.” If we want to be more expansive, but not make the term entirely meaningless (and definitions that insist imagery is anything evoked by words are meaningless) we can use the following qualifiers:

1. Sensual imagery: any evocation of the senses–tactile, auditory, visual, aural, and olfactory in their strict sense as descriptive
2. Intuitive imagery: images that seem scattered and incongruous, non-linear, and perhaps surreal that travel somewhere between concrete detail and abstractions or fantastical combinations of things, places, concepts, things
3. Kinetic imagery: any word or group of words evoking action
4. Abstract or conceptual imagery: forms of synecdoche, metonymy, figurative speech, sensual imagery used to evoke ideas to which one of the five senses or kinesis still clings in ghostly form
5. Conceptual imagery: mere abstraction
6. Evocative/feeling imagery: where any of the preceding forms of imagery are put toward creating a feeling or emotional atmosphere

Poems before the Modernist era tend not to stress “show/don’t tell.” This was a revolutionary concept, partly wrought as a reaction against romanticism, influenced by the simplicity of realism and journalism, and the influence of Japanese and Chinese modes of poetry (misunderstood, of course). Modernist imagist work is also heavily indebted to the dominance of prose. Before Modernism, most poetry told, with showing as merely a form of decoration. Either that, or poetry sought a synthesis between showing and telling where the showing told and the telling showed. When Shakespeare writes, “Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” he is using a form of conceptual or abstract imagery known as synecdoche in which a part stands for the whole: true minds stands for the whole.

Or later: “No. it is an ever fixed mark!” Here, Shakespeare is using imagery in a figurative, not literal way. He is not describing. Instead, he is suggesting a sort of analogy between steadfastness in love and a star that remains fixed in its position. This is very different than a haiku:

Along the river’s edge
ice. And a dead bee deep
in the brown hydrangea.

Here the images need not be taken as implying anything, but one may read winter into them, or the approach of winter. One could see this as both sensual and feeling imagery. Sensually, not one line is without a concrete visual image. In terms of feeling, it may evoke a mood of sadness (though this may not be the case depending on whether you’re the type open to suggestions of feeling states, or somewhat literalist and immune to feeling atmosphere). Someone, especially people that need poetry to have a theme or idea might say: “dead bees… so what?”

Evocation is a risky game, but, for the past 100 years, poets have been told not to preach, or tell, or pontificate, but to show, suggest, and evoke. So evocation and suggestion have been the “ideal” and have become standard. When you look at each poems, you should be aware of what sort of imagery is being employed and whether or not this is the most effective type for the writer’s purposes.

Here’s a writing exercise:
Consider the forms of imagery in the following poems: Hardy’s “To A Darkling Thrush,” Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” Stephen Dunn’s “Happiness,” Paul Eluard’s “Blazon,” Moore’s “The Fish,” Lucille Clifton’s “Hips.” Note what sort of imagery each poet favors. How does their choice of images effect style and tone? Imitate two of the styles. If Clifton, do a poem extolling (or condemning) a body part; if Dunn, take an abstraction like sadness or boredom, and visualize it. Good luck.

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

The Dog in the Garage

The dog in the garage,
The hound that wanders around
Snapping at flies, with an infected ear —

Suddenly starts to run
Across the street at an angle.
He must have remembered something

Mixed with the odors of dust
And car-grease — a delirious
Fragrance of sexual life.

I just started reading Kayak—the poetry magazine George Hitchcock ran almost single-handedly from 1964-84. It’s a wonderful zine brought to life with Hitchcock’s visual collages. The magazine serves as a portal into the surrealist and deep image poetry of the period. Andrew Joron cites it as “the most sustained, and most visible, interact between deep-image and surrealist poetry.” This is good and bad, however, since deep imagism, for many, is a tamed, domesticated pseudo-surrealism—surrealism without teeth. A pertinent quote from Joron:

Such notions [of the deep image], in spite of their superficial affinities with Surrealism, fall short Surrealism’s radical demand for the dialectical Aufhebung of dream and reality. The deep imagists tended to rely on “intensification of intuition” (citing Jung) rather than on the intensification of contradiction; theirs was essentially an affirmative art, devoid of the surrealist appetite for negation and otherness (as exemplified by Breton’s phrase “Existence is elsewhere”).

Joron’s evocation of Hegel’s term, aufhebung, is very interesting. The contradictory meanings of the word (“lift,” “abolish,” “sublate”) make it an intriguing choice for surrealism (which is, to a great extent, Hegelian). The word suggests more than synthesis, as thesis and antithesis are “preserved and changed” simultaneously. In aufhebung, objects remains open and distinct while, simultaneously, merging with the other.

I wonder if a useful dividing line can be drawn between epiphany-centered poems (those written in the spirit of Bly and James Wright) and the “non-epiphanic” deep image poems that gesture, much less conspicuously, toward sublation. There are many poems in Kayak modeled closely on Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock.” Take this poem by David P. Etter:

HOLLYHOCKS

Hollyhocks are swaying gently
under the blue branches of an elm.

I watch 82 freight cars
sink into the corn leaves
and over the rim of the prairie.

On my back now, I watch the sky
make wool pictures of mothers.

Two blackbirds fly toward the river:
the muddy river of endless regret.

I could lie here forever
and look up at these hollyhocks.

I will never get on in the world.

The same pattern of the meditative, nature-conscious Wordsworthian speaker builds up to an implied epiphany, which is expressed through a “gap” or “leap” into a profound thought, usually in the final line. This is a wonderful way to express the powers of intuition and deep interconnection of man and nature. It is “affirmative,” finding resonance and basic goodness in nature and consciousness.

Such a vision and expression is successful in many ways, but it is different, as Joron notes, from one of the more important characteristics of surrealism. And it’s not that the surrealists are dour pessimists who take the same experience and draw opposite, nihilistic, conclusions. Rather, the difference is one of discursion. The “Lying in a Hammock” poem draws a final statement from the experience, whether good or bad (usually good). Their experience of the world is epiphanic, even mystical. The surrealists are more skeptical epistemologically. Epiphanies, by their nature, are conclusive.

But what about Simpson’s poem? Epiphanies seem to be a matter of subjective judgment. His poem doesn’t seem to contain an epiphany. If there is one, it is so minor that it is almost inconsequential. The speaker interprets the dog: “He must have remembered something.” This could be an epiphany (or become one), but the statement is speculative (“he must have”), whereas Etter’s and Wright’s interpretive statements are declarative: “I have wasted my life” and “I will neverget on in the world.” What the dog remembered might be epiphanic—for the dog—or, the fact that the speaker sees this in the dog might be epiphanic for the speaker. But since what the dog must have remembered isn’t stated. Behind the statement is a potential epiphany, but it is gestured toward from a distance and remains hidden. This lends the poem a sense of openness.

Surrealist aufhebung required openness. The surrealists achieve this by eschewing conclusions (and hence, epiphanies). The simplest way to do this is to stick to images and juxtapositions. The implicative nature of juxtaposition seems to do most of the dialectical work automatically for the surrealist. Yet, only when sublation goes unstated can the paradoxical nature of aufhebung be fully realized.

Simpson’s poem walks the line between surrealist openness and deep-imagist closure. This poem is affirmative—of animal life and the power of the unconscious—and the resonance of “delirious fragrance” pushes the poem toward closure. On the other hand, the poem’s basic maneuver (and its success) comes through contradiction and contrast (infection/virility, memory/delirium, industrialism/sexuality).

Most importantly, the sublation is hidden within the world itself and is not a product of the speaker’s consciousness—the dog itself is aufhebung. It (gender unknown) is a living animal that bundles together energies of disparity, disorder, and disjunction. Yet that bundle of attributes achieves a tenuous cohesion—it is a thing capable of following scents (and sense), and of crossing the street successfully (albeit without efficiency or grace). That awkward hodgepodge, the dog, is the paradox of sublation. Simpson both does and does not suggest that miracle for the reader. Undoubtedly he perceives the mystery, and yet, he’s “just reporting” the dog’s actions and psychology. The poem is surreal because the dog in itself is surreal. The poem is deep image because our experience of the dog carries resonance and (potentially) closure. The line between closed/open, epiphany/non-epiphany, intuition/contradiction, or sublation/deposition can be quite elusive. More importantly, Simpson reveals the surreality, theaufhebung, lying hidden within experience itself. (In that sense, the poem points to something I am growing increasingly aware of: surrealism is fundamentally mimetic.)

Certain sections of broca’s area of the brain are involved both in how words are given syntactical order and how gestures, physical movements are interpreted as flow, as arc, as coherent actions. We know that broca lights up like a pin ball machine when shadow puppets are introduced before the eye. My theory of narrative is that it is arc, gesture, syntactical force the most common of which is what we call a story, but not exclusive to story. We have difficulty seeing narrative as lyrical because it seems more “rule” bound than what we consider lyrical–thus, my students tendency to resist turning their gerunds and participles into active verbs, as if adding “ing” to the verb kept the language safe from being overdetermined and definite. This use of gerunds and participles creates a lot of syntactic ambiguity and I think the brain recognizes this as somehow more “lyrical” because it does not activate the broca region to the degree that a syntactically definite sentence (or concrete sequential gesture/action) would. I have often been called a n intensely narrative poet. Truth is, hardly any of my poems use story as their main agent. There are antidotes or gestures toward action in my poems, but very little plot or tale. If I think of four of my most well-known poems, only “Elegy for Sue Repeezi” is a true narrative. “Ode to Elizabeth,” while using antidotes, is truly an ode–a poem of praise and its narratives (I never have one narrative in any of my poems) are illustrative of a panoramic attitude toward a place rather than telling the story of that place. My poem “Fists” is also without a plot. There are actions and memories, but nothing happens that could be construed as a plot. “Morning at the Elizabeth Arch” is not at all a strict narrative.

So if this is true, why do I have a reputation for narrative rather than lyrical poetry? First, with the exception of Whitman, I loath floating or ambiguous syntax. I find blunt sentences, strong verbs, and concrete gestures to be far more aesthetically appealing than ambiguity. Floating is not a desire of mine. Words with no definite position are active principle tend to be inert and uninteresting to me. I also am not a big fan of conventional plot, or linear progression. I like quick bursts of energy, the voice strong and moving between different registers of speech. this does not fit the groove of what we currently recognize as lyrical poetry. It also is outside the groove of what we call narrative poetry proper (which I often find pedestrian and boring). I am far more interested and turned on by affective–narrative, poetry that excites with many gestures and strong movements. My poems are too cognitive for many contemporary poetic tastes, yet, among the narrative poets, or those more conventionally anchored to narrative, I am considered too lacking in progression and the nuance of progression. What many contemporary poets admire I often find inert and faux-lyrical. I also have no love or particular patience with neutral registers of speech and much of what passes for lyrical shares this very middle brow way of uttering–a sort of ongoing equivocation and mincing around nuances that may or may not exist. No thanks.

So if narrative poetry is not story, or linear progression, or antidote, what is it? It seems to be that form of poetry that engages the syntax of gesture,of action, that lights up the part of the brain that wishes to create an arc, to make sense of an action or series of actions. I write poetry in this manner because, while prose can relay information or story well enough, it can not come close to poetry and line in terms of creating the vital tension and speed of gestures, and it cannot isolate single lines, or rhythmic gestures as well as free verse. Prose, except in its more experimental forms, insists as an ordering agent that is closer to logical progression and priority of information, and its stories then are never pure modes of action. They are set up by exposition. Poetry allows me to dump exposition and cut to the chase. Poetry allows me to move between the ordering of the Broca region (syntax and gestures) and the isolate, monolithic qualities of single words as words–language as a form of pure sound and vocality without locality. Poetry for me is the realm of affective action. line moves, line itself is narrative. It makes sense that much language and experimental poetry, getting rid of coherent meaning or story, would start skewing and playing the line in a far more dramatic way. Why? Because the line is a gesture! The line itself then becomes the story or story arc.And gestures also stimulate the formal, narrative impulses. Narrative does not go away, it simply is transformed into the actions of the lines. As for prose poems like those of James Tate, much of Tate’s work is hyper narrative, a series of gestures that may add up to something very different than a coherent story, but which activates the sense of kinesis, and verbal action I think we need to stop seeing narrative as antithetical to poetry. Lyricism in its manifestation of divine possession and afflatus and ecstasy (thus closer to speech as the gift of tongues, and steeped in mystification) made an unholy marriage with prose a while back. Most of what we now call lyrical poetry is merely neutral middle class equivocation complete with line breaks, and the absence of any strongly gestural speech. In short, little of our current poetry talks with its hands. I believe both the greatest narrative and lyrical poetry is gestural, in infinite process of gesture and flux. My poetry is not so much anchored in the understandable as making a dance out of the understandable and the obvious. I like to set the overt dancing. And the most rhapsodic, non-cognitive poetry which we tend to think is lyrical does the same–only from a covert position that must be careful it is not simply a species of class identification. True lyrical poetry moves. It has its being in movement. Both the genuinely narrative and the genuinely lyrical speak with their hands. Poetry speaks with its hands.


Here’s a story right up my blogging alley. I’ve written quite a bit in the past on translation (about Horace and ESL/film), as well as bit on technology and language. I wrote about how Google used the insights of Wittgenstein to overcome the problem of polysemy in search, but ended questioning whether Google could ever overcome the complexities of poetry. Turns out Google has been laboring away at creating a machine translator of poetry.

If I understand it correctly, the poetry translator basically layers several poetic constraints on top of the standard translator: line length, rhyme, meter, etc. Google’s translator uses what Jaron Lanier calls a “brute force” approach to translation. That is, it doesn’t know the rules of grammar—it doesn’t even really have a dictionary. Rather, it scours its database and determines statistical correlation between translations of pages. Put another way, it imitates by means of statistical analysis.

Meta-lord of the cloud-lords of meta of!

Questions of quality aside (i.e., let’s assume Google can be completely successful and create passable—even good poetry translations), would you really prefer Google’s translations Rimbaud over, say, Ashbery’s? Aside from needing a translation in a pinch, I can only imagine an interest in Google’s translation that is analogous to the Turing test: an interest that asks the question “If I didn’t know—could I tell the difference between the results of computer and human translation?”

I have been reading Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget over the last few weeks. He makes a convincing point that Turing’s test is essentially the wrong question. Part of the function of asking “can it fool us?” is a desire to find a computer that can. As a result, we’re essentially willing to dumb down our expectations of what it means to be human in hopes we’ve created machines that think. Ironically, it’s our very human desires that make the Turing test fail. The real judge of the Turing test should be a computer with a merciless set of criteria. No doubt somebody, somewhere has already realized this, and there is a computer slaving away at creating and judging its own intelligence.

Which brings me back to the question: why do we want to read Ashbery’s translations of Rimbaud? I see two motivations: the first is to read Rimbaud without learning French; the second is to read Ashbery reading Rimbaud. Google doesn’t read. To say that it does would actually change the definition of reading, wouldn’t it? Reading implies not a functional end (e.g., Ashbery produces a translation of Rimbaud), since it can exist without a functional end (e.g., Ashbery reads Rimbaud in French).

Perhaps more importantly, Google doesn’t even use language in a way that we recognize as language. Some animals use what we would rightly be called protolanguage. They can acquire a vocabulary, and perhaps even use it in creative ways (I heard a story once about an ape that put two words together to ask for a watermelon: “candy water” or something along those lines). At best, though, animals can only mash together vocabulary, without what we could refer to as “syntax.” Syntax is the ability not only to acquire vocabulary, but to manipulate it according to a deeper intelligence that categorizes vocabulary. It’s the difference between “Micah smile” and “Micah smiles.” The latter indicates not only the fact that I have associated one thing with another (the action of smiling with the word “smile”), but that I can categorize it as a verb and thus deploy it in a sentence (oh the difference an “s” makes). This syntactic ability expands when we think about relative clauses, which nest and hierarchize ideas. We even have words for pure functions of language (e.g., articles). Animals are unable to do this (unless, of course, you’re teaching a gorilla that it will die someday—perhaps death is the motivator of syntax!). Google uses statistical analysis to achieve a kind of protolanguage at best. At best, it “learns” (a word also worth an essay) to associate certain phrases with one another. But, unlike animals, it has no will to use them.

All this is to say that there is something uniquely motivating about a person doing something. A Google poetry translation will never make me reconsider my life, except in a purely serendipitous (i.e., accidental) way.

I suppose deep down I am a personalist, believing there is something utterly unique and irreducible about persons. And I worry sometimes that the whole preoccupation with AI actually takes away from the real achievements of Google’s poetry translator: we clever people have found a way to essentially use an on-off switch (0s and 1s) to do something as complex as creating a passable translation of a poem. But as we are humans wont to do, we get distracted, venerating our creation rather than marveling at the deep mystery inside us which motivated us to create it in the first place.

Here’s a quick overview of the project if you’re interested in reading more about it. Here’s an interview about the project from CBC radio (scroll down to “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Digital Night”—below that one, there’s also another very interesting interview with a Canadian student who created a computer program to analyze rap lyrics).

In the beginning of “Ode To A Nightingale,” Keats writes “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk, or emptied some dull opiate to the drains/One minute past and Lethe-wards had sunk.” Some ninety years later, Eliot begins the “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock: “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.”

Eliot begins with the imperative: “Let us go.” Yet “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, is the antithesis of the imperative. Eliot’s mock epic tone is further compounded by the speaker’s knowledge of his inconsequence. He is so inconsequential that he can not even fully rise to the occasion of a clown. Keats, for all the passivity of the speaker (he lies in drowsy numbness, listening to the immortal bird) is about the mystical oxymoron of passivity as pure action—to die into eternal life, to sleep in the immortal song. A lot changed in those 90 years between these two wonderful poems.

Hemlock is a poison, the one Socrates drank. Ether, in 1909, was the anesthesia used to prepare patients for surgery. The romantics were fascinated with states of torpor, the irrationality of dream states, with trance, altered consciousness, the whole itinerary of being out of one’s rational mind–all reason suspended for the sake of the sublime. The modernists do not escape this fascination, but, for them, torpor is expressed in the anti-mystical tropes of keeping busy at inconsequence. Man is not asleep in order to receive divinity. Rather, divinity has become etherized, and man lives under the scenic terms of this enervation.

Keats is willing to die in order to enter into communion with the nightingale. In point of fact, he makes no secret that he must die in order to be born into the world of night–the poesis of the Nightingale’s voice. He must drink the dull o[iate “to the drains.” This nightingale is timeless, the same bird Ruth listened to over two thousand years before “amid the alien corn.”To journey into the underworld “lethe-wards,” to hold covenant with the immortal, one must “die.” Abraham, when he receives the covenant from Yahweh, is put into a trance state, and the power of Yahweh moves through the severed animal parts, and ignites the holocaust. Abraham takes no active part.

This is standard operating procedure in matters of the transcendent, and the sublime. Something happens—some aspect of the supernatural or immortal visits and is “received”
Passively–in a state of trance, of “drowsy numbness.” (think the limp hand of Adam receiving the divine spark of God the father in Michelangelo’s painting of the creation). One becomes inanimate, dead in the mortal sense, for the purpose of being reanimated as it were into the sublime. As Kenneth Burke pointed out, heaven and the eternal can be viewed as laudatory terms for death—a state of stasis, an end to history and movement. Using the Benthamite tri-partite registers we can express it as such:

Laudatory: Heaven, eternity, the immortal, the sublime, all breathing human passion far above
Neutral: death, stasis, suspension
Dislogistic: decadence, listlessness, decay, rot, uselessness, super fluidity, seediness

In the presence of the sublime, one mimics the death-like quality of the eternal. One becomes a fitting scene for the entrance of the gods. Prufrock, on the other hand, is anything if not busy. The roles are reversed. God (the pervasive presence of evening) is asleep, and Prufrock is loathe to wake him. After all, that would be impolite, wouldn’t it? The poem is full of frenetic activities that have almost a Marx Brothers mania to them: the women come and go, there are countless visions and revisions, possible seductions that do not take place, self conscious concerns with thinning hair, a sort of manic pettiness. Even when Prufrock receives the vision and song of the mermaids, it is the one time he is almost sure of something: “I do not think that they will sing to me”( he has heard them sing to each other–a sort of mythic upgrade of the women coming and going and chatting about Michelangelo, a mythic upgrade that fails to raise the stakes, and, rather, transforms the mermaids into a bunch of self-involved society women) He has eavesdropped on the mermaids and they are no more concerned with him than the women who come and go. When he lingers in the chambers of the sea, he is not awaked by the voice of gods, but by human voices: “Till human voices wake us and we drowned.”

In Prufrock’s universe then, meaningless social acts, the art of keeping busy has taken the place of a truly relational myth–a myth by which the eternal can fully infect the mortal with an aspect of consequence, and the terms of the mortal be raised to the level of eternity. The future is full of possibility which never comes to fruition: “In a minute there is time/for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Eliot alludes to Macbeth’s “There would have been time for words such as these.” He also implies: “all sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but, in this case, fury has become niggling complaint and fretting, in short, the bangless whimper of the superfluous man, a man who knows he is superfluous (I am no Hamlet) and yet is loathe to change.

To be nothing is no barrier to mystical experience. Keats’s speaker is brought to nothing so that eternity may enter. In point of fact, it is necessary in mystical terms to become “nothing.” To be “a little something, but not really that at all” is, in a sense, far worse a fate than nothing: to be the lukewarm, the tepid modern man. In 90 years, a reversal has transpired: one goes to sleep by ceaseless activity, none of which has consequence. For Keats, “sleep” is the true activity of human consciousness. Sleep is the laudatory and transcendent, the pure “act” of man, and in his poem, “Sleep and Poetry,” Keats, by going to sleep, eats his peach:

And choose each pleasure that my fancy sees;
To woo sweet kisses from averted faces–
Play with their fingers, touch their shoulders white
Into a pretty shrinking with a bite.

Both Eliot and Keats play with the mystical oxymoron of sleep as wakefulness, and wakefulness as sleep, but Eliot’s Prufrock wakens only to drown. The speaker in “Ode To A Nightingale” asks: “Do I wake or sleep?” But whereas “Ode To A Nightingale” is a poem in which the mortal tastes of the immortal, and permanence/impermanence share true relation, Love Song” is a poem of very social non-relation. Stuff happens ( or is always on the verge of happening), but it is not even enough to amount to nothing. It is, rather, a little something, but not even exactly that: “That is not it at all.” One thing and then another happens, or almost happens, and none of it is of consequence. The evening which lies inert, enervated, put to sleep, can no more infect the speaker with cosmic import, then ‘talk of Michelangelo can raise the women above the level of social chit chat: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Prufrock is not only an attempt at anti-romanticism, but anti-mysticism as well. Prufrock can not sit still, but he can not move either—except through all the petty tropes of the social construct .Both poems begin with a simulation of death, of a state of numbness. To enter night is to enter a sort of living death, a state of unconsciousness, of altered consciousness. But the speaker in Prufrock remains fully awake to the trivial, and even his fear of being trivial becomes a fashionable fear of inconsequence. No mystical union of the mortal and the eternal takes place. There is no covenant except with distraction and inconsequence. Eliot projects this numbness then onto the cosmos itself. It is the scenic ground zero of all that occurs. If the evening is etherized, it invokes the sense of an impending surgical procedure. Although this procedure would seem to take place upon a living evening, it is, in reality a post mortem—an autopsy. The romanticism of night and death is muted, blasphemed against by turning away from the romantic tropes of night toward a sort of clinical image repertoire. This blaspheming against the romantic via the clinical is furthered during the whole of the poem by the sense that, whatever the operation is, it is most certainly botched.

Keats’s poem is relational: mortal poet and immortal bird, each infecting the other with their own qualities—the bird becoming poetry, and the poet becoming the sublime forlorn. Eliot’s poem, for all its insistence on a “you and I” is non-relational. It is all about the failure to enter into true relationship, to receive a covenant. Worse still, Prufrock clings to his inconsequence since it is the one thing he can be sure of. Forlorn in his case becomes always a dividend and mild sense of disappointment.

Eliot would seek many years later to remedy the impossibility of the modern sublime by returning to a sort of arch-conservative faith, yet, even in his late poems of faith, there is a contingent sense of alienation. One may be social, seedy, indulge in the questions of whether or not to eat a peach, but no true relation is possible. Eliot’s “love song” is all about emotional paralysis—the impossibility of “forcing the moment to its crisis.” Keats’s Nightingale is all about entering fully into the crisis of the mortal creature who can intuit immortality, but who must remain tied to the ephemeral. The mystical oxymoron of the immortal within the transient, and the transient within the immortal is still valid. Lament still has its significance. The great crisis in Eliot’s poem is that there is no crisis, only the awful, soul enervating experience of a trivial and seedy urbanity. The voice of the poem insists “there will be time” (an allusion to Macbeth’s: “There would have been time for words such as these: tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in its petty pace)” This is not a statement of hope, but of ennui.

What draws these poems together is simulation of death-states in relation to the afflatus of night and song—of rising or sinking to the occasion. In Keats’s universe, the sublime is still possible. In Eliot’s, the sublime has become a form of Bovarism. Keats’s speaker can enter the apostrophic absurd. The poet can address an immortal bird. Absurdity maintains its gravitas. By the time of Prufrock, the absurd has been reduced to a sort of radical and self-aware ineffectuality. Eliot’s mastery of pastiche, of irony, of the anti-romantic and anti-mystical left succeeding poets in a bind. Prufrock is a great poem, but Eliot’s great poem is based on the tropes of greatness being dead. Williams saw Eliot as retrograde, a mere rehash of late 19th century agnosticism, and the British stanzas. Hart Crane, a worshipper of Eliot’s technique, rebelled against the loss of the sublime, against the nihilism of Eliot by answering with his long poem, “The Bridge.” In Benthamite terms, Keats raises the absurd to sublimity. If the neutral term is the absurd, Eliot lowers the absurd to the level of the pedestrian and vapid. Lament becomes pathos. This may have been useful as a corrective to bad remakes of “Dover Beach,” but as a fashion, it had no staying power, and for a good thirty years it did become the fashion. Auden was saturated with it. Once you have torn down all the idols, being comfortably inane and sad over your tea and toast makes for a dangerous poetics. In the hands of lesser writers it led to a sort of witty and gimmicky sense of enervation and despair. The seediness of Eliot’s industrial landscape gives way to the hard boiled detective novel and, worse, the “my aren’t we empty? Tennis anyone?” Sort of drawing room comedy. Still A great poem can not be faulted for having a destructive effect. But if Samuel Johnson is right, Keats’s great poem is the greater for its moral force. To attack the tired tropes of transcendence is of great value. To affirm the core truths of existence is greater still. I admire both poems and count them among my favorites, but, if forced to choose, I choose Keats.