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Poetry and Poetics

Naked Except for the Jewelry

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

From Refusing Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This could be expressed in prose as:

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

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

G. All of the above.

As for the medium line,

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

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

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

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

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

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

G. All of the above.

Reasons for a long line:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E. All of the above.

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

Neutral, dyslogistic, and laudatory registers of speech:

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

Shadows Fell (Jennifer Townsend)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The People the People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

with …the hysterical finality

of dividing cells.

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

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

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

He goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three asides (concluding with awesome segue):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are rewarded in the following ways:

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

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

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

Post-industrial poesis, neighborhood aesthetics

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

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

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

Still, the close reading. Fine. You will have your blasted close reading. However, I will conduct this reading on my own terms. I will shuffle, and play the cards at my whim, sometimes to my detriment. First though, a word on why and how I’ve resisted the close reading.

“The Waste Land” begs a different criticism. My initial interest in the poem sprung from the seeming impossibility for anything clever to be said about the poem, and yet everyone went on assigning it, sometimes with a tone of reverence normally associated with religiosity: “You don’t get it? None of us do, it’s a mystery! Work toward it though, it has its rewards!” That Eliot can be enjoyed without thorough understanding is entirely true. The danger, of course, is that Eliot may or may not be part of what we might call The McMansion Canon. This canon has the look and feel of substantial lodging, but was erected specifically for this appearance.

I have said that Eliot is not an elitist, but a nerd. I stand by this. What I failed to mention, however, is that often, in pursuit of the mastery of an idea or ideal (in this case, language) the nerd becomes the bully. An elitism by submission if you will. Indeed, Bill Gates, the patron (saint?) of nerds reminds us, “Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.”

Thus, in this age of the internet, where I take my rigor and turn it into something a bit more performative, something which (if I may deign (I deign)) engages the audience and recognizes that this act of internet writing is, as it occurs at the push of a button (thereby drastically cutting the gap between writer and reader), more similar to a stage than a page, it is not much of a surprise that Eliot is having something of a popular revival. The ability to split-screen, open tabs, tap hyper-links with a finger, express-order live performances of, say, an epic utterance that can be enjoyed in less than thirty minutes, etc., have enabled happy days for Eliot, precisely because he is so famously complicated. Notice that “The Waste Land” for iPad has been Mac’s best-selling book app, surpassing Marvel Comics and Twilight. “The Waste Land” has always begged its readers to multitask, to make leaps, to be both attentive and creative readers. “Garbage Picking,” this method where I invoke the poem and then collect its significant rubbish, was created for “The Waste Land.”

Upon arriving at the first line of “The Waste Land” proper we’ve read lines from Petronius’s Satyricon, Dante’s Purgatory, The Book of Common Prayer, and hopefully Miss Westion’s From Ritual to Romance and Frazier’s The Golden Bough. That’s six texts, counting “The Waste Land” itself, and four languages. And do not try to sell me that—ahem—garbage about the terms and circumstances that led Eliot to write the footnotes. It is an odd mythology this poem engenders: it asks to be read impersonally, and often the same readers who hold this fact to be sacrosanct are the readers who form all sorts of logics as to why Eliot included the footnotes: “He was being ironic, he was having a laugh at the people who said the poem was difficult, he was trying to buttress his reputation (it’s critical success was not guaranteed, after all).” No, the footnotes are a part of the text. If there is a personal fact from Eliot’s biography that is important, it is that he was a sickly child and spent his youth indoors, reading.

Let’s look at the excerpt of the Satyricon. I have a translation here:

I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her ‘What do you want?’ She answered, “I want to die.”

A powerful and brilliant epigraph. It does a number of duties, two of which I will remark on. First, readers of Miss Weston know that the trope of the Priest/Healer runs parallel to that of The Fisher King’s hero, the hero who makes the kingdom plentiful by healing its wounded king. So “The Waste Land” opens with a priestess who wants to die. We then ask “The Waste Land,” what about you is a climate where the healer wishes herself to be dead? That Sibyl of Cumae signaled the coming of Jesus might also prove relevant.

Second, and you have to know the Satyricon to know this, Sybil of Cumae asked for eternal life without asking for perpetual youth. Above, when the boys question Sibyl what she wants, she has aged into a pile of dust. In a sense, she is neither living nor dead—thus, her answer, “I want to die.” The epigraph also implies that death would be preferable to an in-between state. This reading assists with lines like, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

Finally we read the first line. “April is the cruelest month, breeding.” A famous line for good reason. It’s counter-intuitive. April is the Easter season, the time of rebirth! But based on what we know from the epigraph we might guess that the speaker has not yet earned rebirth. Is the speaker, who later turns out to be the Phoenician Sailor and the hero of the poem, like Sibyl of Cumae, a handful of dust in a cage, wishing to die?

Aside: Eliot takes shots at the Romantic tradition throughout this poem, and when the second line goes onto read, “Lilacs out the dead land, mixing,” we should read that as a slap at Mr. Lilacs in the Dooryard himself. Quick fixes and emotional blabber that solves nothing, that is how Eliot reads the Romantics. Eliot wants to go deeper, down amongst the roots of the dried tubers.

“I. The Burial of the Dead” is a ritualized invocation bringing the proceeding elements and themes of the poem. WWI is indirectly referenced in the first stanza. If the poem begins with the Burial of the Dead, what can the poem bring us? Note, in the Book of Common Prayer the initial passage is from John: “I am the resurrection and the Life saith the lord: he that believeth in me, though dead, yet shall live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” So belief grants eternal life. But what if, like Madame Sosotris (a play on a Aldous Huxley character, symbolizing Bertand Russell, famous atheist (and a close friend of Eliot’s then wife)) we do not find “the Hanged Man,” whom Eliot tells us he (Eliot) associates with Jesus. Are we then merely pieces in a game with rigid and very certain boundaries?

For a student of comparative literature, something very interesting occurs in “II. A Game of Chess.” A woman speaking to our hero commands him to think: “‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me./’Speak to me. Why do you never speak?/’What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?/’I never know what you are thinking. Think.'” In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot the master, Pozzo, commands his servant, Lucky,
“Think, pig!” Also, Eliot’s “East Coker” uses the phrase “The end is in the beginning.” Beckett’s corrective is in Endgame. Hamm announces “The end is in the beginning, and yet you go on.” Hold on to this. I will argue that Eliot is, by lineage, more properly an ancestor of postmodernism than Modernism, and that the McMansion Canon too readily charted Eliot’s position as distinct from Beckett’s.

Can you find the sonnet in “III. The Fire Sermon?” I’ll give you a clue. It contains a veritable rape scene that highlights the name of the section by describing a cocky “young man carbuncular” and a typist who finds it easier to allow him access than to refuse. “The Fire Sermon” comes from the Buddha’s sermon on overcoming the flailings of pleasure. For Eliot it is not just the body that must be usurped; the other’s body must also be usurped.

The theme of water is the most interesting and most complicated theme in “The Waste Land.” Water, Miss Weston tells us, will restore the land, and yet throughout “The Waste Land” the hero will “fear death by water.” Also, the phrase “Those are pearls that were his eyes” sung by Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest suggests a transformation that might occur were one to drown. “IV. Death by Water,” the shortest section, is an invitation to hope against hope for redemption, that we might die and the hands of our redemption and be transformed. Death, for Eliot, permits life.

The final section contains the most convoluted denouement in the English language. “The Waste Land” ultimately tries to answer Miss Weston’s call for a piece of literature that combines the entire history of The Vegetation Gods and later Holy Grails myths, and we see Eliot’s belligerent, mechanized program of unity in the final eleven lines:

_______I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.


Now, what I am about to do is for your eyes only. The point of this poem is this brokenness, the stretching of the lungs too wide that it might inhale all of history, and resurrect its own story. The speaker is nuts. If there is an emotion in “The Waste Land,” it is that this command to multitask has driven her insane. But for our purposes:

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Then he hid himself in the fire that purifies them
When shall I become like the swallow?—O swallow swallow
The prince of Aquitaine in the abandoned tower
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Give. Sympathize. Control.


There is a concession. The poem suddenly reduces its lens to “my lands”; a second ago the speaker was naming every major European city in history, we’d been to Ganges and Jesus had appeared in the walk to Emmaus . . . and now one sits on the shore and the plain is arid. The land, or that which is exterior, has not been restored. It seems that the speaker shrugs in the face of defeat; an image of a city in ruin, but a famous child’s rhyme, a whimsical and simultaneously sinister gesture; and suddenly, English now, we see a narrative.

The Fisher King (“he”) has again disappeared, into the fire that purifies. (Remember Weston’s Vegetation God is dumped back into the river after there is no use for it.) But so when will I be transformed, made into the once ravished swallow that now sings? No: instead, I am the prince of my abandoned tower, my cage only, and I’ve collected what I can to ensure my survival.

At that moment, when the speaker is merely protecting against ruin, The Fisher King returns, using his guile to bring out the causes of his son’s death. And the cycle begins again. Give. Sympatheize. Control.

Formally “The Waste Land” is most similar to an Upanishad; it’s nature is philosophical, it is most effective as a performance, and it even makes not just one, but all Upanishads a part of its body. But it’s also special poem. It’s wildly irregular. And Eliot is a special poet. He is cool because his design and detail are radically weird. His work looks like nothing else. And I find that I can return and return and reimagine and reimagine.

But he is also an idiot. I take a hands on approach with the folk I admire. Eliot is entirely racist insofar as “The Waste Land” is granted its departures by entirely prioritizing the enactment of written culture over the spoken word. And, my friend lewis will help me here, but the ethos of art as luxury is bunk, too. Art is neither luxury nor rebellion. We’ll talk.

And if I may borrow from Eliot, my real gripe with “poetry is an escape from emotion” is that it is an inexact formula. Like O’Hara’s notion of “Personism,” in which a poem is directed to a specific recipient, thereby launching the poem into abstraction for the general audience (the intensely personal becoming impersonal), Eliot’s impersonal poem is the most personal. When Eliot says impersonal, he doesn’t mean inspired, he means necessary. To paraphrase myself, it is Frankenstein’s monster: Made of the component parts its master uncovered, and forever bearing that master’s name.

In my last post, I modeled a way of holding a conversation with a text. I call this “pont-consciousness.” Pont means bridge in Latin. It is the genesis both of pontiff and pontificate. Used as a verb we make a bridge between disparate texts or things, trusting that the bridge may then be shorn up with the necessary research and attention to the main text. Universities always want you to use the latest research on a topic, just as lawyers site the latest precedents to make a case. If you’re bibliography does not cite anything but old books, old papers or essays, your grade will suffer. This is the myth of “progress” rearing its ugly head. It makes total sense in terms of science and historical research where empirical data builds on incremental discovery and findings, but it is falsely applied to literary theory since, here, the new is not necessarily empirical, but conjectural, and, very often, a creature of fashion rather than of “truth.” To an extent, “truth” is always a slave to the prevailing fashion, and god help you if you study Shakespeare outside the present fashion of gender studies or post-structuralism. All of this “rigor” and insistence on the new is the bias of false scientific positivism. Nothing new in this sense is necessarily “progress,” but rather a recapitulation or new wrinkle in the  basic mechanisms underlying fashion and its dynamic, but you must live in this world. You must comply. You must cite the paper written yesterday and ignore the excellent article from 100 years ago.  Of course, this system senses its own stupidity, and so it concocts canonical critical to go with the canon of literature.

In recent times theory has become a competing canon, with the theory representing a sort of Jazz fake book upon which the critics blow their changes. Often, these “changes” bear little or no reference to the  literary text at hand. Personally, I am not an enemy of this state of affairs. In the hands of a wildly creative critic, we get what amounts to a complimentary music side by side with the cannon. There is much to be said for creative criticism, and we could even make a case that Derrida and other famous literary critics of the last fifty years have composed some of the chief tunes of the age–not novels, not poems, not plays, but their own hybrid of speculative philosophy, of conjectural poetry, with its own rhetoric, style, and characters.

But in this post, I am going to be old fashioned: I am going to apply some of the stuff I gleaned from reading four paragraphs of Hannah Arendt’s Vita Activa to a poem for which what Arendt  is saying proves fruitful: Blake’s  “A Poison Tree.” So first, the poem:

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

The genius of Blake is his playing out the location of private and public human activity to show their psychological truth and depth. Arendt says goodness must be hidden in order to remain goodness. Made public, it loses its force. It may remain useful as good works, but it has entered the realm of the public and takes on the diminished life of mere appearance, of “goodly seeming.”

Some of this is a very close cousin to Plato’s archetypes and sense of the pure. In another great poet, we see this played out as “unheard melodies are sweetest / pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.” The “pure” is not visible or audible, or known to the senses. Made visible, it loses its essence and becomes substantive. Essence can essential substance, and substance may substantiate essence but always at the cost of the pure realm of each. No man may see the face of God and live because the face of God is degraded by being seen, and man is lifted above his mortal life in its presence. Augustine, versed in Neo-Platonism, takes this further, expanding on Paul’s Romans. God sees only God. Insofar as a man is in a state of grace, God does not see his personality, but his soul which is made in the image and likeness of God. The body conformed to the soul, purified of sin also rises, but must be dead to all fleshly desires. It must fall down on the body of the crucified Christ, and rise up with the risen body of the same. It is, as Paul called it, a “spiritualized body.” God does not see sin because sin is naught–the nothing. When Jesus Christ is covered in sin on the cross, God turns his face from him. Christ becomes sin itself. Though Christ never commits a sinful act, he becomes the scene of sin on which the force of salvation through sacrifice and resurrection are played out (read Issiah 53). In order for God’s face to exist it must be “hidden”–implied only through grace and virtue. It is degraded by entering the realm of public or visible activity.

Arbitrary power may be shown publicly in the world only as ceremony, ritual, seeming justice, and seeming mercy. It must never appear arbitrary or it begins to lose its identity. It must remain visible only through signs of “order.” Blake is saying that wrath made public is the overt action of a covert intimacy. Making his wrath known to his friend, the narrator dissipates its force and ends it in the intimacy of renewed friendship. Hiding his wrath from his foe, the wrath becomes generative. It becomes a god, a force around which and from which all else proceeds. In the public sphere, in the world of appearance, this wrath is a beautiful tree and a great apple. The foe, being truly a foe, seeks to usurp this apple, and to make it his own. Falling for the bait of “goodly seeming,” he is poisoned and dies. In secret, the narrator has cultivated this wrath, watered it with his tears and fears, sunned it with his soft and pleasant wiles. He has hidden it under the terministic screen of “goodness.”

We can apply this to how normative systems subsume the energies of counter-normative systems, and “poison” them with their “goodly seeming.” When a system cannot destroy its counter-statements, it seeks to incorporate them, visibly or not. The counter first wears the blatant uniform of its “difference.” In the gay counterculture we find leather, fetish, send-ups and outlandish parodies of the straight culture. At the same time, those still “in the closet” wore the mask of the straight. When gay culture begins to win normative status and becomes “just folks,” it is depicted in movies as wearing Bill Cosby sweaters, attending the PTA, taking on all the concerns of the “straight culture.” At the same time, formerly gay semiotic indicators enter the realm of the straight.

Beyond the counter-normative and the normative, there is the pre-normative and the post-normative. Instability might be the only constant, but beneath it all lies the power of the arbitrary. This is what counter-cultural movements and all political revolutions risk: by over throwing the seeming “power” that oppresses them, are they merely eating from the poisoned tree of goodly seeming? And in relation to the “first,” the initial power of the arbitrary, can any true change be said to have taken place?

A further point: Arendt insists that the goodness must be hidden not only from the world, but from the one who enacts it. Quoting Christ: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” If wrath is one of the activities that must be hidden in order to truly exist in its fullest, most pure sense, then it is even more potent and alive when it is hidden from the wrathful (passive aggression). Much neutral speech, politeness, and decorum hides tremendous violence. One can say that true wrath always needs a goodly seeming apple to be effective. The terministic screen of a passive-aggressive may be martyrdom and victimage (think of the mother in The Sopranos). “Who me? Mad? Of course I’m not mad. Why should I be mad?” But, in this poem, the narrator is aware that he has harbored a grudge and allowed his wrath to grow. He is deliberate, intentional. He lures his foe. In this case, the wrath remains covert, but not to the one who feels it. His outward appearance, his “soft wiles” draw the foe in. This apple is his “seeming” power, and his foe, being a true foe, seeks to steal it, again under the veil of darkness. The narrator and his foe are one. For true intimacy there must be not union but communion. The friend is “other,” but the foe may be seen as a projection of the self. The self, outside true relationship, splits off, and becomes a false “other” to its own tendencies. Thus a system in order to hide its worst tendencies must project them onto an “other.” This is the intimacy of opposition.

At this point I wonder what is hidden from the narrator but not the poet: the foe is the narrator, and the narrator is the foe. They are split off aspects of each other. They are one in their wrath. No relationship is possible, only union, and union is degraded to the dyslogistic register of murder. The union of substance and essence is the death of both substance and essence. The murdered and the murderer share the scene of the crime. They inhabit the same scene. When the murderer leaves the scene of the crime, he leaves a part of himself there in the defining act of his being. Here is the question: how often do we, in seeking the power denied us, the “goodly seeming” denied us, succeed only in eating from its poisoned tree?

Here’s a few creative things you can try to experiment with these ideas.

1. Write your own version of “A Poison Tree,” of feigning friendship for someone you can’t stand. This can either be creative non-fiction, a story, or a poem.

2. Read up on the psychological concept of passive-aggression and transference. Write a poem, story, or creative non-fiction piece in which these concepts are the overall theme, but are not mentioned overtly.

(This post was to begin with a quote that I remember as having been said by the filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard: “You don’t read a film; you watch it”. While trying to chase down the quote, though, I found it had disappeared so effectively that I began to doubt both the words and the person to whom I was attributing it. Regardless of who said it and whether they said it that way, here it is, the quote as epigraph:)

You don’t read a film; you watch it.

A poem, like a film, is a different beast. It is both an event and an object; which it to say, it occurs in time and it occupies space. It is music and it is drawing.

It may not be both things at once, but it has the potential to be either.  And both (though not necessarily, of course, at once. See previous sentence).

When poetry functions as music, when it is spoken aloud, when it unfolds in time, it trusts to memory. All music is memory. Poetry recited is, for the listener, a path unfolding where none existed before. A listener does not know what comes next; only the poet and the speaker know.

A listener may only have the haziest notion of what came before but there is no way of retracing her steps. Poetry spoken aloud moves in only one direction: forward. (It also ‘moves’, for the most part, from left to right, but we will come to that later).

The recitation of a well-known poem is to the listener what a recorded song is to a live performance. The listener has a particular way of reciting the poem and may be out of step with the ‘live’ version now being performed in front of her.

When a poem is read aloud, the speaker is an object who can be read. No: watched.

When a poem is recited, there may be more than one performer. Poetry spoken aloud may ripple outwards.

Poems on the page are not read; they are watched.

Poems on the page are read, but only after they are watched.

When I choose a poem to read, I first look for the ones that occupy less space. Or at least, ones that occupy one space: a page or facing pages. I view the poem at once, without reading.

Think of it as an aerial shot or a bird’s-eye-view of the poem. In saccades, I take in information about density of text, patterns and repetitions, empty space.

I am reading – no, viewing – Kazim Ali’s ‘The Return of Music’. (Kazim Ali, The Far Mosque, Alice James Books, 2005).

One poem over two (facing) pages. I catch the words ‘orange’ and ‘sapphire’. Then, in a cascade, the words ‘unfold’, ‘Unopened’ (from the next line, because my eyes slide down), ‘unsummon’ and ‘uncry’ (back to the previous line).

In my mind, I have attached the prefix ‘un’ to the ‘you’ in ‘you will’. As my eyes drift to the facing page, I am thrilled to see that what my mind made has been made again on the page. This line: ‘Unyear you will. Unyou you will.’

There are other thoughts I have before I even read the poem – from top to bottom and left to right, the way poems in certain languages are usually written and therefore must be read (what if a poem must be read in a different order, actually read against the grain in order to make sense?).

These other thoughts, such as: that I might have used the word ‘cascade’ above because this poem contains the words ‘course’ and ‘carved’ and ‘wends’ and ‘went’. Such as: is it really a coincidence that I picked a poem about music in order to demonstrate how I watch a poem?

Such as: the instant I use the word watch to describe an experience, I describe the experience in time. The object may not move in time, but time passes anyway. See: Abbas Kiarostami’s Five Dedicated to Ozu. It occurs to me that regardless of my wanting to separate a poem-as-event from poem-as-object, it is both, simultaneously.

As I read, I go back and forth, moving between the lines, refreshing my memory, reminding myself of what went before. I tell myself this is freedom because if I were listening to this poem, I would be bound by the pace of the speaker and my attention span.

(I remember that I am able to memorise poems only when I record them and listen to the recording constantly. Learning poems is like knowing the lyrics to songs: you know it without knowing when you learnt it.)

When poems are long, longer than two facing pages, I panic. I want to have a sense of its ending before I begin. I flip the pages to get an idea of how long the poem is.

(Pages are to minutes what distance is to time. I say, ‘It’s 15 minutes by bus.’ I don’t say, ‘It’s 3 kms from where you are.’)

While reading a long poem, the attention slips and affects the experience of the poem in the same way that inattention affects the heard poem. What occupies these gaps?

When I read a long poem – a book-length poem, say After Nature – I hold the book in my left hand and flip it as if it were a flip book and something would animate itself.

I expect persistence of vision.

I get end words from lines. The beginnings are firmly (with)held by my own hands.

Beginnings are only entry points. The poem-as-object has more than one point of entry.

I think of Jean-Luc Godard (again!) releasing the full version of Film Socialisme on the film’s website (now defunct). It was the whole film, but it was a speeded-up version, lasting 15 minutes or less.

When I flip through a book of poems to get a sense of what it is about, I think I am performing a blurb. Or do I mean a précis?

(I ask myself: is it possible to have a photographic memory for text in an unfamiliar language?)

I think: ‘This is impossible’. I decline to say what ‘this’ is.

In the Mahabharata, when the sages in the Naimisam forest ask Sauti to recount the events that form the epic, they ask him to tell them the story in detail. Sauti, in response, gives them a history of the versions of the epic and how Vyasa came to write it and says, ‘It is the wish of the learned in the world to possess the details and the abridgement.’

The poem viewed or watched, then, may be the poem first as précis then in full.

Can a poem ever be only read?

Like Eliot’s “East Coker,” the second part of this dumpster dive ended in its beginning. In Part 2 of “Garbage Picking in Eliot’s Waste Land” I resolved the mystery of “The Waste Land” with such ferocity and acuity that the fan-mail I’ve received for my accomplishment has been rather demeaning. In fact, I’ve received no fan-mail at all. No one has even mentioned this study to me, and so I’ve been forced to write myself several letters, letting me know how I am coming along, and how I am faring. Here are three examples:

1. “It does not seem like you believe what you are asserting about ‘The Waste Land.’ Part 1: Eliot is the most American poet? The poetics of nerd-dom? These arguments are sweeping gestures and are unsubstantiated, if they can be proven at all. Part 2: You begin you assessment of the poem itself by attempting to solve its entirety, and although your declaration that the ‘The Waste Land’ is a fundamentally personal pursuit of Eliot’s is fairly convincing, you must admit that you have abandoned the reader, and good sense by beginning where you do. Other that, you mutter truisms of academic work and the methods of symbolism, and conclude with another unfounded slip of reasoning in regard prophets and arts and such. Slow down, Tom, and appreciate his work and your own, by god.”

2. “Are we ever going to see a close reading of the poem, or will you prattle about design forever?”

3. “You are neither cute nor charming when you rail against yourself as you do. Please, save the phony self-abasement for your extracurriculars. Besides, it only seems you enjoy yourself the more you pile lashings against your own work.”

Fine criticisms indeed. Truly, I have the most eloquent of readers. I will defend some of my methods in a moment. But first I will answer these remarks by proceeding with a more calculated decorum.

It is a mistake to think of Eliot as having totally rejected what might be regarded as the American tradition of “immediacy.” I’m speaking, of course, about Whitman, W.C. Williams, Ginsberg, and now Ashbery. (Ashbery’s great accomplishment, it might be noted, is that he mediates Whitman’s poetry of the moment with Eliot’s style of collage.) These great white sharks are marked by urgency (see W.C. Williams’  “Of Asphodel That Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult to get the news from poems/yet men die miserablely everyday/for lack of what is found there”), formal flux, and, in varied degrees of intensity, a championing of the personal.

Eliot is all of the above. Yet because he is abstract, dense and because his significant poems are relatively long, we assume that he is not urgent. His formal flux is more apparent than any of the aforementioned because it happens from within poems, and less so between them. “The Waste Land” itself contains blank verse, free verse, couplets, ballad meter, and a sonnet. This third category, that American immediacy is indefatigably personal and, if you take Eliot at the word of Eliot, not a characteristic of Eliot’s poetry. Famously, from Tradition and The Individual Talent (published in The Sacred Wood in 1920):

It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting. His particular emotions may be simple, or crude, or flat. . . . In fact, the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him “personal.” Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things. . . . But very few know when there is expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done.

Yes, Eliot attempts make poetry into something of a social science. (We’re also reminded of “The Fire Sermon.”) “Emotion which has a life in the poem and not in the history of the poet,” begins to sound like something a sociologist may be able to survey, analyze, and report. And what are these emotions that live in the text? To this, we turn again to The Sacred Wood, this time to “Hamlet and His Problems”:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

So the task of the poet is not to present emotion as the poet experiences emotion, but to create emotion; to make emotion a viable experience, a veritable object–a thing that exists regardless of the reader’s attention or intention.

It is not a coincidence that Eliot’s reputation has survived more powerfully (with the exception of the Quartets) in his criticism than in his poetry. Unlike Prufrock, Eliot dares. He speaks with an infamous tone of objectivity; a psychologist whose brain is both the tool of implementation and the case study. Funnily enough, this is exactly Eliot’s criticism’s intention. When asked about his criticism, his response was that it was “merely a by-product of his private poetry workshop.” Note the trajectory of Eliot’s career: Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), Poems (1920), The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920), and “The Waste Land” (1922).

I’m already receiving the next batch of fan-mail: Thomas, get to your point! Fine, fine.

I have two objections here:

1. Eliot the Victorian is alive and well in Prufrock. Yes, he has disdain for the chatter of the art rooms, but he is there, among them. Poems is a collection of bad poetry, striving for something new, mainly an effort to synthesize his style more fully with the power of allusion. Then, ta-da, The Sacred Wood, a collection of wonderful essays that, by Eliot’s admission, carve a vision, and lay blueprints for “The Waste Land.” Two very interesting essays that are not often read are “Ben Jonson” and “Blake.” “Ben Jonson” is remarks on a poetry of ‘the surface,’ where characters purposely lack a third dimension but populate an accurate vision of the poet’s world. Also, Eliot attends to Jonson’s reputation for having failed as a poet precisely because he was scholarly. But look at what happens if we combine “Ben Jonson” with “Hamlet and His Problems”:

Every creator is also a critic; Jonson was a conscious critic, but he was also conscious in his creations. The critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power conforms, or attempts to conform, to conventions; not to the conventions of antiquity, which he had exquisitely under control, but to the conventions of tragico-historical drama of his time. These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization.

Eliot might not have used Hamlet as a vicarious existence for his own creations, but he did use Jonson. Look at how he universalize Jonson’s malady of conformity! How is this impersonal? It isn’t! It’s a suture for the failure of poems, that “The Waste Land” might have been the scar. True, this is not the poetry. But first admit that Eliot’s impersonal poetics were said to extend to the criticism, and indeed, his criticism is highly personal; we will see more of this in “Blake.” But also, what is to be made of Eliot’s own inability to synthesize the creative and critical work?

In “Blake” Eliot’s personal movement is less a matter of my own performance. His entire analysis rests in a reading of Blake’s personal biography:

The question about Blake the man is the question of the circumstances that concurred to permit this honesty in his work, and what circumstances define its limitations. The favouring conditions probably include these two: that, being early apprenticed to a manual occupation, he was not compelled to acquire any other education in literature than he wanted, or to acquire it for any other reason than that he wanted it; and that, being a humble engraver, he had no journalistic-social career open to him. There was, that is to say, nothing to distract him from his interests or to corrupt these interests: neither the ambitions of parents or wife, nor the standards of society, nor the temptations of success; nor was he exposed to imitation of himself or of anyone else. These circumstances—not his supposed inspired and untaught spontaneity—are what make him innocent.

Eliot, of course, also had a “real job” as “The Waste Land” was composed.

In sum, a highly personal string of criticism directly before an “impersonal poem” is a bunk idea, firstly because Eliot’s TWL, if it is personal, rests in the ideas generated by his very personal criticism. Criticism where he not only universalizes the processes involved in the creation of poetry, but also universalizes the predicaments of both scholarly and working individuals. That his criticism and his poetry are irreconcilable are only one of his examples of the fragments in 20th century poetics.

2. My other concern, which is implicit in the first, is that this divorce of poetry and poetics exposed a weakness in “The Waste Land” that Eliot tried to buttress, but could not. In writing this “impersonal” poem, Eliot had camouflaged its meaning so deeply that he was it’s only possible reader, it’s only attendee. In lab of poetical sciences he’d created a Frankenstein of composite parts he’d dug up, baring his own name–in effect, the most personal poem! And besides, any avid reader will tell you that nothing is more personal than what you choose to read. (Pair this with Part 2–”The Waste Land” asks us to, for a moment, become T. S. Eliot himself.)

His remedy was to attach a reading list. Thus the footnotes. Thus, the text is now fragmented between two texts. And in these footnotes, the personal remarks from Eliot, the notes that position Eliot the person in various locales, should be read as a concession from Eliot. The impersonal poetry in impossible.

Photo by Marco Muñoz.

I often call myself a Catholic poet. I was raised Irish Catholic working class in a mixed neighborhood where almost everybody was Catholic, including the African American families who came from the Bayou. Henry Rountree was Catholic. The Sampsons were Catholic. I didn’t know anything else except for Jewish people who I liked because, like us, they walked to church. A child gets some strange notions–at least I had some strange notions. I thought the best job you could have was as a garbage man because it gave you muscles and you could sing and throw cans around while you followed a truck. As a little kid I would follow the garbage men and sing with them. They tolerated me. Occasionally, they even let me “help” them throw a can or two into the maw of the truck.

There was still a rag man in those days, a grumpy old guy in a horse drawn buggy who would come down the street crying: “Rags! Rags!” His horse would shit all the way down the street, and the garbage men had their own way of saying “Shit” which I emulated. At six o’clock at night the Angelus bells would ring from all the churches of Elizabeth. I would stop whatever I was doing and listen. Sometimes the bells would ring through my belly. Sometimes, the moon was caught in the branches of the silver maple outside our house. The first star rose. In winter, the starlings would make little fart noises and wolf whistles as they perched in the trees and on the telephone wires. Somehow this all seemed tied to God for me, and I would get strange feelings of ecstasy–as if I were at the center of something swirling around and around in the eye of God. I would spin until I was too dizzy to keep standing–fall under the trees under the telephone wires, under the starlings with their fart noises, my eyes on the moon and my belly full of bells.

Years later, when I read William Carlos Willliams’ “The Catholic Bells” I was impressed that this far from Catholic man had it down pat–the essential brokenness of the world which was holy–not the pontificating, perfect, morality of doctrine, but the holiness of the imperfect yet ever swirling consciousness of God in the parrot jealous of the new baby, and the young lame man going to mass, and the bells calling forth the whole life of the city. This was the risen Lord, and every day in this context was the rising from the dead. But it was not victory, anymore than it was defeat. It was something beyond those two whores–something that cheated them both–a life that could not pinned down to the tawdry forms of the conditional. I never laughed at old ladies who kept funeral cards in their pocket books. I never laughed at their statues of the Virgin or thought them close minded or naive, though they were often close minded and naive. They were many other things. They raised me. They gave me gum. They called out my name in the streets at dusk. They had suffered all sorts of losses they seldom mentioned. Their hands were always doing. When I received the Eucharist I thought of them–all who did not count in the so called “important” scheme of things. I never liked priests. I was not raised to worship priests. I respected them, but kept my distance. Priests were like those rare and odd great aunts who came into your life once in a blue moon and, if you were nice, they gave you a piece of hard candy.

My Catholicism did not center around priesthood. My faith centered around a very pagan concept of seasons and liturgical movements around the year. During Lent, the statues were covered in purple. I wanted the priests to mark me deep with the sign of my mortality–the ashes. I liked Father Furlong because he’d press the ashes deep into your skull. He never let you go out of the Ash Wednesday service without looking like you’d been working in the coal mines. I liked the High Masses because I was vain and had a beautiful boy’s soprano and I sounded wonderful when I’d sing: “Sprinkle me, Oh Lord with your sign, wash me and I shall be purer than snow.”

Catholic to me did not mean priests: it meant the old ladies who went to six o’clock mass every morning to pray for their dead. It meant my brain damaged brother Peter who I was taught was not culpable for any sin and was therefore a saint. I was taught that my brother’s broken body, his paralyzed body, his inability to speak, his brain damage was a sign of holiness. I was taught to value what the world believes is worthless. I still believe that–and not out of any sentimental distance from the broken. I have experienced the kind of poverty and failure many Americans never face. I do not like failure or sadness or suffering. I do my best not to contribute to them, but I also do not feel an aversion to these blights because something in my soul, something in the deepest part of my being is awakened to these things as signs, as more than what the world would call social ills or tragedies, or failures. To me the only true failure, and it is an aesthetic failure more than a moral failure, is to be blind to the beauty that lies embedded in the ferocity, and merciless vitality of life itself–the risen Lord in the daily and lowly and broken sprawl of things.

I am a Catholic poet because I embrace this world of the broken as a series of signs. These signs deconstruct what the world calls “happiness” or the good life. These signs are the folly of joy, a far greater aesthetic–one which will always outlast our utopias and conditional forms of perfection. I believe in Eucharistic reality–in the bread that is broken and from which grace is made possible.

This aesthetic of the Eucharist informs most of my poems. It makes me out of step with much contemporary writing. I use the tropes of post modernism, and even surrealism and dada when I feel I need them for spice, but I see them as being dangerously close to the heartlessness of rich Republicans. From the standpoint of my upbringing, a conservative Republican and new lifestyle leftist looks pretty much about the same. Neither gets the old ladies at six o’clock mass. Neither understands the baffling endurance of the poor. Neither understands the lowliness of things that go beyond the conditions of failure and success. The Republicans manipulate these old ladies (and very nicely) to bad ends, and the Blue State opposition disdains them, and to me, the grandmother–the old lady is the chief sign of God on earth, and I think this is true for millions of poor people. And it is exactly this lowliness which is being forgotten, and to forget this is to become a sociopath, a bum, a person not fit to live. It was the women to which Christ addressed his most human message against how we judge, and it was to these women he first appeared upon rising, and who washed his body when he was taken down from the cross. It was to the lowly and forgotten that my Lord appeared. Their mercy and love in a world without much mercy and even less love is what makes me still go to mass long after there is anyone left alive from my family who would chide me for staying home. We have forgotten the broken of this world–not so much as sociological excuses for charity, but as real signs of God–as the miracle of love for the enemy. Our nation will be destroyed because we have turned away from the truly risen and glorified body of Christ: not one of his wounds is removed. In that risen body, each nail hole, and the crown of thorns, and the spear thrust into the side is still evident–because my Lord Jesus is to be touched, is fully human, does not turn away from the broken, and does not buy into the shame and disgust we too often feel for them.

Life is not to be “solved.” It is not a problem or a solution. It invites us to spin under the trees until we cannot stand. It sings with the garbage men. It cries rags in the streets. It can teach a stupid little boy that his brain damaged brother is a saint before the throne of God. It can hope in the foolishness of the Gospel. It does not arrest homeless women who want their children to attend a better school. It does not build walls at its borders to keep out the “illegal” poor. It does not waste its intelligence on a vapid cult of celebrity. The Lord I know is risen from the tomb and is spinning under the starlings. I believe in him. I have no other God.

Warning: mUutations are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk. See Uut Poetry for more info.

The conflict between eternity and time is deeply embedded in the consciousness of human persons. I believe it gives rise to most impulses that define us as human: the impulse of language and literature, cults and philosophy. When I look at the Anastasis in the Chora Church or hear the words Handel chose from the book of Job (parts of which probably predate Judaism itself)–”and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God”–these seem to express profound human hopes that exist in one form or another, even in prehistory.

Almost all cultures have some way of venerating the dead. The very notion of tradition is, as Chesterton called it, “the democracy of dead.” (And what is poetry if not, in some way, a tradition of speaking and a means by which poets gain for themselves a kind of immortality?) Of course, many belief systems do not have any notion of resurrection, or even an afterlife. That’s not what I’m talking about: rather, I think it’s the desire to merge or rectify sacred and secular time. I hear something similar in the grief of Gilgamesh over Enkidu (here in Ferry’s translation):

Enkidu, the companion, whom I loved,
who went together with me on the journey

no one has ever undergone before,
now Enkidu has undergone the fate

the high gods have established for mankind.
Seven days and nights I sat beside the body,

weeping for Enkidu beside the body,
and then I saw a worm fall out of his nose.

I roam the wilderness because of the fear.
Enkidu, the companion, whom I loved,

is dirt, the companion Enkidu is clay.
Must I die too? Must Gilgamesh be like that?

This might be a leap, but when eastern writers talk about emptiness, I see a similar impulse, an attempt to rectify time and eternity, though with a slightly different bent. Buddha:

He in whom a desire for the Ineffable (Nirvana) has sprung up, who in his mind is satisfied, and whose thoughts are not bewildered by love, he is called urdhvamsrotas (carried upwards by the stream).

And Lao Tzu:

Always without desire we must be found
If its deep mystery we would sound;

By emptying oneself of desire, one can hope to escape the vicissitudes of time (Nobody gets mad at an empty boat, Chuang Tzu says). Think of mystics who desire a peace beyond circumstance through ascetic practices. Think of the God’s rest on the seventh day of creation.

That scene set, think of Auden’s ballad-esque poem “As I Walked Out One Evening.” As I read it, the poem is a direct engagement of this conflict. It’s a debate between a lover enraptured with the beloved and a clock enraptured with time. Notably, the lover is singing “Love has no ending”:

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
__Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
__And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
__Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
__Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
__For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
__And the first love of the world.’

I see the lover here as a stand in for the poet, as one who thinks love is both immortal and can be immortalized. The lover speaks in the tradition of the Song of Songs: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm: for love is strong as death.” Note the images of a kind of return to pre-history, perhaps because the ancients had a much keener sense of living in an almost eternal realm upon the earth. “I’ll love you / Till China and Africa meet” could be an image of impossibility, but I’m reminded of Pangea, the literal meeting of the continents.

I am still dubious, though, about whether the poet here is enraptured by the appetitive passions (the hunger for an other) or has tapped into something deeper, something almost pre-existent: is “the first love of the world” a profound statement about the nature of the universe or the result of engorged hormones?

“But all the clocks in the city / Began to whirr and chime:” now enters the machinery of modernity, dispelling the lover’s “magical” notions of reality. When I first read this poem, I assumed the clocks were metonymous for Time itself. But as I was doing the dishes the other night (hands plunged in the basin, as it were), I saw it makes more sense to see the clocks as beings enraptured with the notion of time, in the same way the lover is enraptured with the particular beloved.

The clock takes a certain delight in dismantling the ambitions of the lover, and in the process gets some of the best lines in the poem:

Time watches from the shadow
__And coughs when you would kiss.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
__The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
__A lane to the land of the dead.

‘O stand, stand at the window
__As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
__With your crooked heart.’

Notably, the clock’s speech about the “truer nature” of the world, about the crush of time, serves only to increase a desire to escape the transience of time.

It’s easy to think the clock has won this debate. Cynics always seem to win because their cynicism places them beyond reaching. It’s a crass, but often effective, perch to argue from. The clock is also given the last word, the chiding riposte.

It’s easy to forget the third voice, the translator of the event: Auden’s speaker. The imagistic choices of Auden’s speaker also seem to affirm the clock: first, “The crowds upon the pavement / Were fields of harvest wheat” could be a perfect image of the transience of life. And could there be a more perfect image for the crush of time than a river? Doesn’t water, like time, eventually wear even rocks to nothing?

But there’s this passage from Siddhartha that I think is relevant:

Have you learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?

…That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadows of the past, nor the shadow of the future?

Does the river upend the notion of time? If so, then one could at least consider the clock in Auden’s poem to be rebuffed. The fields of wheat could also be an image of history as cyclical, which also disrupts the notion of the arrow of time.

The true mystery in the end is that of the speaker, I suppose, a removed observer whose own latent perspective is too slippery to pin down: river? clocks? lover? Who wins the debate?