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Poetry and Poetics

(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?

PHOTO by Marco Muñoz.

I’m going to put the next few terms under the larger sweep of synecdoche, a word that is dangerous to delve into since theorists and language experts, in their mania to confine, have proven themselves enemies of it: synecdoche, in its Greek form, is an amazingly useful and valuable term. It pretty much means: “It’s understood.” And we can break “it’s understood” down into three or four classes:

1. It’s understood that the part means the whole: “The arm of the state.”
2. It’s understood that the whole means the part: “The state called today and said I owe them my first child.”
3. It’s understood that it’s not to be taken in a hyperbolic way, although said in a hyperbolic way: “She’s a wreck.” This third one is so close to metaphor that you could call it that if you wanted to be a jerkwad, but it’s a shabby metaphor that, in this conversational situation, works much better than a well polished metaphor: “She is a graceful sloop splintered upon the merciless waves of misfortune.” (Yeah, right.)
4. It’s understood in terms of object, time, space, emotional condition, even though it may not be a time, a space, an emotional condition: “That’s guy’s a player’” or “Doesn’t she know she’s eight years past her expiration date?” (She’s going to get dumped).

More or less, synecdochic speech and all its subforms are understood even though it’s either not said—except when said in part or in a whole that means a part—or… well, you get it. It’s all the speech around things: inference, metaphor-but-not-exactly, half-said things, things said wholly that don’t mean the half.

In the Greek, it’s a beautiful word that pretty much tells us what the linguists, experts, and rhetoricians refuse to admit: language is often a hopeless (thank God) matter of almosts that fail to be 100 percent accurate and are, therefore, understood far better and fruitfully than they would be (and misunderstood far more dangerously) than if people were uber-precise at every turn and spoke with the absolute literalism of someone with high functioning Aspergers (I believe Aspergers students are a lot more adept at almosts than given credit for, and not because they “get it” but because language can never be truly “gotten.” An Aspergers student who learns by rote what others “just know” will be far more precise, and their language, when cleansed of figurative speech, is far more “post-modern” than most emoters. I see high functioning Aspergers as a post-modernist emphasis on T-factor—the thinking faculty in the Myers-Briggs…but more on that later).

I don’t believe in the neat distinctions between learned and hard wired behaviors, and believe most behaviors are some hybrid ration of the two, so my own theory on language, as to what is hard-wired, is this: as with math, where there is a center for the brain that controls precise calculation (2 plus 2 equals 4) and a related yet independent area that controls approximations (2 plus 2 equals 3 or 4 or 5, but never 4,344), we will find that language also has such a split. Children go through a stage where all non-human animals are called by one animal. This is “good enough,” just as it is good enough in some parts of the world to denote all color by red, black, and white, but snow has as many as forty types (the crayola deluxe denotation of snow). Depending on what part of your brain is more developed or more dominant, not only overall, but at any given moment, and in any situational context, you will be moved toward precision or toward “good enough,” towards information/denotation based language or form/synecdotal utterance.
Now, the greater our love of data, facts, and information becomes, the more our society fancies denotative/informational speech: rigorous nomenclatures exclusive to a certain field (the jargon of post-modernist theory), information, or “just the facts Ma’am,” unencumbered by any rhetoric or emotionally charged utterance. As Kenneth Burke—my hero—said in Counter-Statement, “The hypertrophy of information leads to the atrophy of form.”

Here’s the weird thing: as post-modernism and the scientific stress on T-factor moved us away from form/synecdotal writing, we became more and more obsessed with metaphors! It is kind of hilarious to hear scientists and theorists speak of metaphor because very often they do it in a step-by-step, uber-empirical way that smacks of high functioning Aspergers. No one can ruin metaphor and the joys of metaphor (but not the joys of comedy) more than academics obsessed with metaphor. There is a good reason they are obsessed with metaphor: they don’t “get it” really, and they want to. They fail to realize that it is not to be gotten and is gotten by not getting it. It is the almost, the “understood” part of the brain lighting up, that part which never calls for precision without ecstasy, or for ecstasy without precision (an almost, that is just so).

I want to connect this to another term: hendiadys. Hendiadys is the “understood” through the conjunctive. It can be sonic, intellectual, emotional, sensational relation. When it is intuitive relation, it usually exists in the realm of the surreal or the comical. It is, in this instance, a “blasphemy against the expected that gives pleasure.” I like to think of hendiladys as “handy ladies.” I must have a cockney gene somewhere. Anyway, examples:

All Sound and fury (emotive, or figurative)
of Mice and men (both categorical and sonic)
God and world (conceptual)

As I have said before, the wonderful word “and” both joins and separates. I see it as the chief relational in the English language. It both yokes and sunders. It is the ultimate melding of dialectic with aporia. It is the one word I would write a musical for!

Take “love and death.” It is understood these two go together because of usage, but what does love really have to do with death? Suppose I say, “Love and little men picking their noses at a bus stop while discussing Proust.” This is what I call comic hendiadys. It is used in many postmodernist, surreal structures. It is “Wrong” for all the best reasons. I can even get rid of the word “and.” I can write, “It was a day for true love. We all realized it. Men stood at the bus stop, picking their noses while discussing Proust.” Believe me, that is at the heart of postmodernist structures: to emphasize the disconnect of “and”, very often for the sake of either a deeper connection, or as a critical disavowing of connection, or for the comic energy of the incongruous. It destroys understood and agreed upon priority, but, if it is done for comedy, it affirms an order by disobeying it. I also believe there is an “Aspergian” form of this hendiadys that truly does not recognize “understood” categories. A high functioning “Aspergian” might take exception to “all sound and fury.” They might think “well the sound must be a sound of anger or loud, or it can’t be fury.” This emphasis is not necessarily bad in a post-modernist structure. Two of my best creative writing students have high functioning Aspergers. Their forthrightness can go from the tender to the comically literal such as when one of them, being a forthright and decent girl who couldn’t stand when people used the words “shut up” (she knew it as rude) said to her disconsolate boyfriend: “I know you are sad. Don’t be sad. I will give you a blow job tonight,” in front of twenty people. She only realized this was odd from the reaction. She was not being funny. She was being considerate. Approximation is never innocent. Precision often is.

Assignment: look up hendiadys. Play with things that have never been joined by an “and”: “Despair and beefy truck drivers masturbating at a rest stop.” Remove the “and” and tell the narrative as I did above. Good luck.

A footnote: Someone like Andy Warhol was able to have such great power because he was dadaist–not ironic. When Andy Warhol said, “I just adore a really good murder,” he was aping the innocent lack of social cues peculiar to Marilyn Monroe. Read his diaries. He was not innocent, but he understood the power of it like no one else. Absolute literalism is irony made conspicuous by its absence.

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.

Here’s Matthew Zapruder’s “To a Predator”

I woke up early and saw a fox.
It was leaping and dragging its glorious
red and white tail behind it across
the road. It held a grasshopper in its mouth,
which it dropped when it saw the small
carcass of a young javelina. Last night
I was woken by their hairless rooting through
a field of cactus in moonlight. They all
stood together, ears rotated forward into
the breeze, protecting the single mother
protecting a pair of young. Their
mustachioed labium superius oris i.e.
upper lip protects a gentle tusk
the color of greywater. I almost sympathize
with their corporate need to snuffle
and roam in packs until dawn returns them
to hollows they made in the ground.
But my sleep does not. Thus I shone
a very powerful flashlight into their midst
and watched them scramble across
the highway, dispersing. Thus I walked
out into this morning, wearing a shirt
the color of a dandelion, whistling
an uncertain tune about the mild unequal
life I would like to know better of a rich
acquaintance in the Mexican city of Guadalajara.

I’ve been thinking about what Robert Kelly wrote in the early 60s about each image in a poem having “its field of force, its shadow moving darkly through the poem.” Arrangement, or sequence, for Kelly, is the key:

Basically, the fullest force is possible only by means of the successful employment of one image’s position in a context of other images… The subsequent image is conditioned, made to work, by the image that precedes it, and conditions, as it is finally conditioned by, the image that follows it: through the whole poem…

The whole poem is more than the sum of its parts. Very important for this superequivalence is the ORDER of images within a poem.

Kelly is thinking about images, but it is impossible not to see an overlap with narrative or dramatic sequence working the same way and being almost the same thing. In Zapruder’s poem, the most remarkable moment is not the encounter with the fox-mother and babies in the night, but the “shirt / the color of a dandelion” the speaker dons the next morning. The sensory and psychological tone in that detail gathers almost all of its meaning from the scene preceding it, the nocturnal encounter. “Thus” rhetorically aids the transference and reinforces the sense of a causality-link between this moment and the night before. We’re cognitively confused and delighted at the notion that a shirt’s color (or his choice of shirt) hours later had anything to do with the foxes. The tight, chronological structure of the poem amplifies this effect. What’s the “residue” of the previous images on the image of the shirt? It’s impossible to say—herein is the ineffable, almost magical trick poetry playing on the mind.

The effect also comes through a paradigmatic or contiguous relationship, much more directly having to do with what Kelly is referring to. Zapruder’s parallelism hints at it:

“Thus I shone / a very powerful flashlight…”
“Thus I walked / out into this morning…”

Synchronicity or simultaneity: two seemingly unrelated things happen in different places or times but are held together artificially. It’s more jarring when the things are further apart in time and space, such as the “rich / acquaintance” in Guadalajara. Somehow this new character belongs in the network of meanings with the foxes, flashlight and shirt.

This is more than, or something other than, metaphor. Zapruder’s metaphor of the foxes’ “corporate need to snuffle / and roam in packs” places a lovely, filtering veil of corporate America over fox-ness, opening all kinds of analogous correlations and possibilities. But corporate America is not the dramatic frame of reference, whereas the dandelion-colored shift and flashlight and foxes are and are thus forced into contiguity along a lateral axis. They share the same “ontological” status, whereas metaphor is figurative and removed. Obviously, metaphoric vehicles still lurks around “darkly through the poem,” but not as prominently.

This effect operates in a poem whenever there is a shift in discourse of subject matter. It’s not necessarily just Bly’s “leaping,” either, which requires emotional content. In Leaping Poetry, Bly wrote that Ashbery and his disciples didn’t properly “leap” because they merely change subjects without a “head-of-emotion.” But Zapruder’s shirt doesn’t have much emotional valence and it still works to bring that special aspect of reality to the fore: the paradox of the simultaneous unity of everything hidden in the appearance of disorder or chaos. So I’d take issue with Bly and agree more with Kelly, who says nothing about emotion. Merely changing subjects does seem to work.

Kelly sees transformation of the world as poetry’s function: “We are given: 1 world to transform, 1 language to transform it with,” and adds, “transformation is process, involves truth as emergent from process and not distinct from it.” Kelly was describing a new kind of poetry (deep image) when he wrote these ideas, but they have proven applicable to a whole range of poetics of disjunction.

I figured I’d post these. Many poets employ them without ever knowing their names, and that seems to work, but I like knowing the names of things. There’s something thrilling and wise ass to me about going through the world, saying: “Oh look! A Eurasian tree sparrow!” At age six, I fell in love with a girl because she would say things like “isn’t the planet Venus lovely tonight? Look, Joseph, it is rising over the Chivas Regal billboard sign across the street!” Who wouldn’t love a girl who talked like that? I guess a lot of people might find her a trifle pedantic, but the pedantry of never being allowed to know anything gets on my nerves. It’s as if everyone were being stingy and saving it up for a test or waiting for me to make a mistake so that they could hammer me over the head with my own ignorance. This little girl was generous, and her bestowing of information seemed forthright. She taught me birds, and planets, and little facts about rivers that ran backwards. I loved her. So it is in memory of her, forever lost in the murky waters of my past, that I post rhetorical devices for the next two or three posts, hoping someday, a person reading these might turn to their companion and say: “Oh look James, a stunning example of chiasmus!”

Let’s start with Anadiplosis (and discover others along the way). I love this name. I think of it as “Anna Di Plosis, a stunning old woman from Florence who knows how to hold her scotch (in her herbal tea) Anadiplosis pretty much means to begin the next phrase as you ended the previous. It could be one word, or a couple words. I’ll give you an example:

Wind rousted waves,
waves tousled and torn
torn from all thought and all humor:
Humor me if you will:
Kiss the bright hem of my garment,
garment of silk, and inlaid pearls,
pearls milk white as your foam,
foam that has carried the stars,
and will carry them back,
back where all pearls are born.
kiss the gold sandaled feet of Deirdre,
Deirdre, of the sorrows
this pearl tossed into the sea.

Now even though this poem has no regular meter, it sounds metered. In point of fact, it sounds like something more than meter, and that something more is what I call “invocative pulse.” Whitman has invocative pulse beyond any American poet. Invocative pulse is born from rhetorical devices such as Anaphora, enumeration, apostrophic address, and, in this case, anadiplosis. Invocative pulse functions in both poetry and prose that is meant to give a sense of speechifying– not casual speech, but the speech of orators and bards. When the modernists came along, they purged poetry of more than just regular meter and rhyme. They took away most other rhetorical devices as well. Ginsberg, following along the line of Whitman, made popular again the act of speechifying. To many ears raised on modernist and postmodernist free verse, deeply invocative poetry sounds over blown and tacky, but, to many ears longing to hear something out of ordinary journalistic speech, the free verse written bereft of all rhetorical devices, sounds flat and drab. To those who hunger for sound, a poem stripped of all such devices is neither poetry, nor even well varied prose

No poet escapes rhetoric entirely. I see rhetoric (persuasion by ear) as a sort of ongoing address to the sea, to posterity, even when it’s being used to address a rotary club. Such poems have a sense of ritual. We might call it eloquence. Sounding appeals to us through more than mere information. Using Kenneth Burke’s definition of form, and modifying it somewhat: “The building of and fulfillment of a desire in an audience or reader beyond mere information.”These devices were a vital part of the oral tradition, and one can still hear their echoes in speeches and legal documents. Used in moderation, they don’t have to sound high-falutin. And that is your first mission: write a short prose piece or poem that uses anadiplosis. Example:

Fuck (A blow to The Head)

So, like she clocks her brother Igor upside the head with this enormous cabbage? Cabbages can be lethal, man. Man, the poor dude goes down for the count, I mean he’s out, and starts foaming at the mouth–Mouth, full of drool and blood, no shit, and she’s standing over him like the queen of Sheba… hey, what time is it? It better not be nine dude. Dude, If it’s nine, I’m fucked. Fuck it. I’m fucked.

Certainly not eloquent, but it can help render this idiot’s character just by the way it sounds and, here, the anadiplosis just seems part and parcel of his poverty of speech.

There are other rhetorical devices employed in the first example: personification, apostrophic address (talking to something that does not usually talk back: like the dead, or the sea, or America, or a microwave). Alliteration figures into the poem: wind/ waves, tousled/torn. Anadiplosis could also be considered identical rhyme (rhyming look with look). I want to call rhymes that take place at the end and the beginning of lines Anadiplosic rhyme. Example:

Diving Into The Sea

I dove into the sea,
me, who never swam.
Damn it was cold.
Old men ogled my tits.
Bits of sea weed got caught in my hair.
There is no way I’ll do that again.

I guess the point of this beyond giving you some names is to show that there are hundreds of ways to create invocative pulse beyond rhyme and meter. Most of the devices of rhetoric are sonic, rhythmic, and mimetic—usually all three. They originated in a time when words were heard rather than read. Usually, when a poet declares that he writes poems that are meant to be read on the page, and only on the page what he really is telling me is that he hates “sounding.”In a sense, he has been won over to the rhetoric of silence and has a pure streak, but even punctuation “sounds.” It is meant to control and vary the speed at which we read. Even the white space is deeply rhetorical, whether we admit it or not. A period is a call to a full stop. A comma is a lesser pause. All this belongs to rhetoric since it is about pulse, the persuasion of varied or regular pulse.

If you want to escape all rhetoric, you are out of luck. Poets who hate their poems leaving the page often read in as flat and uninteresting a tone as possible. Often, very arrogant haters of poetry read aloud will ignore their own punctuation and just read through the periods, commas, or white space. This is childish and stingy, and is based on no aesthetic merit save meanness and hatred of sounding. Of course, too much rhetorical might can piss anyone off, but violent, “on the page” poets (I love calling them violent) are not being honest. The reader will impose a rhythm as he reads where none exists. Not finding any rhetorical devices, the reader will usually create them. So even if you are poet of the page, and nothing but the page so help me God, it is good for you to know the devices of rhetoric, if only to avoid them.

Assignment: write a poem using apostrophic address, anadiplosis, and alliteration. Then take the poem and strip them of all these devices. Good luck.

When I was ten or so, a large flock of starlings, and assorted brown-headed cowbirds used to come visit a deserted lot near my house every fall. I liked nothing better than to run among them, and listen to the collective soughing swoop of their wings as they lit out for the trees. It was best if the sky was full of brooding cumuli. It was best if the wind was trying to rip the brown leaves from the pin oaks.

I don’t know why this made me feel so happy. When those birds no longer showed up the next year, it was a short but real grief that overcame me, and I would go to the lot in order to feel my grief more keenly. Since the birds were no longer present, my grief over their absence sufficed.

Wildness–to spin, to run amuck, to go shouting into the sea…all this unbridled sense of motion–has something to do with obedience. In the world beyond mere social order, obedience takes the place of conformity. There is a cycle of seasons, a rising and ooze of sap, a motion of tides, a curl of carrot leaf and wave, and all this grand motion obeys. It is not disobedient. Disobedience only exists where the laws have already built the scaffold of conformity from which preachers admonish and on which sinners hang.

A year or two later, I had found an old, slightly water logged copy of King Lear, and I read it with much confusion but with far more delight in its loud cacophony of sounds. I liked saying the words aloud in a very pretentious voice:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!

The birds came back, and instead of running among them, I shouted this speech of mad Lear as loudly as I could. They scattered! The second time I did it, they scattered less. On the third try, they just kept grazing on the seeds and grasses and ignored me. The birds understood the first and second delivery as a threat not much different than running among them. But, by my third performance, they knew it was no real threat–just some crazy kid in a field shouting. Still, I realized the sounds in this language obeyed some real violence–the violence of wind, and storm, and anger. The words were not imitating nature They were not mimicking a large mammal rushing at a flock, but they contained some of the same energy and violence as that force. Rather than holding the mirror up to nature, they were using some of the mechanisms the dynamics of cacophony. If I had delivered them in a whisper, not one bird would have flown away.

As far as the difference between conformity and obedience goes, we can submit that Cordelia obeys, whereas the Regan and Goneril conform. Obedience in the realm of the social construct can cause us to be misunderstood, even censored. To obey the organic truth underlying principles is much more dangerous than conforming to their outward resemblance. Many great writers pay a price, not for being disobedient, but for being obedient to some necessity beyond mere conforming. To be a non-conformist in this sense means to obey the deeper truth and risk being mistaken as a rebel. Nothing is more perverse to the status quo than true obedience. Goodness does not need the status quo. Evil and mediocrity insist upon it.

Some of the worst conformists I know practice a sort of intentional disobedience. They have no more idea of the underlying principles of the laws they break than the conformist who never thinks of going against the status quo. They break laws for the sake of breaking laws. They, too, like the conformists, are incapable of knowing anything but the letter of the law. In their case, they hate the letter, but do not know the spirit. A saint is always a scandal, always a destructive force in relation to the status quo because a saint obeys in such a true sense that he or she is liberated from the status quo. The saint cannot be tamed by law. Law exists because saints are in short supply.

Rather than telling students not to rhyme or have meter, rather than telling students to write free verse, ask them: what do you think are some of the reasons people rhyme and employ meter. If you work hard at this, you might get:

1. Because it’s fun, and like magic–like a spell (spells, nursery rhyme, any manner of conjuring)
2. Because rhyme and meter takes human speech out of its ordinary ruts (ceremony, or the love of pattern)
3. Because it is a great device for remembering (the reason for rhymed adages and proverbs)
4. Because it can order strong emotions and passions so that they are portable and inversal (Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”).

Then you can ask what might be some of the reasons a poem does not rhyme or have a regular meter:

1. Because the poet wishes to explore subjects beyond the mere sonic semblance of rhyme and meter–in their organic movements so to speak from one thought to another, without struggling to shape thought to a regular pattern.
2. Because the poet wishes to explore the very “normality, and strangeness” of regular speech patterns, of people just thinking or speaking. In short, not a lack of pattern, not randomness, but the complexity of irregular rhythm.
3. Because the printing press was invented, and prose became the dominant force, and the mimetic need for rhyme and regular meter was no longer so urgent.
4. Because free verse can step outside prevailing patterns and enter the stream of consciousness in which the writing is seemingly of the moment, without poetic conceits of rhyme and meter.

All these are legitimate reasons why one might choose either to write in rhyme and meter or free verse. You can also mention other mimetic devices beyond rhyme and meter that free verse has maintained, but in lesser volume: alliteration, anaphora, rhythmic listing, enumeration, hyperbole, metaphor, understatement, over statement. Once you parse out why one might choose one over the other, you can eliminate conventions and get at underlying principles.

Both metered/ rhymed verse and free verse must have a sense of rhythm yet an occasional relief from pattern in order to be effective. Variety is intrinsic to free verse. In rhymed and metered verse, variety is the exception to the rule that keeps the rule honest. In free verse, any prolonged pattern is the exception that keeps the free verse honest (or endangers it). But both conventions rely on variety and pattern. It’s a matter of emphasis (one places pattern above variety, the other variety over pattern), but both variety and pattern show up. Bad rhyme sounds sing-songy. Bad free verse seems to have no real pulse or sense of ceremony. It may as well be prose (and not very good prose). This does not rule out the flat as a value. Intentional flatness, maintained as the law of a poem, is a rhythm of sorts. If it is intentional, then you ask: what is the purpose of the flatness? Some poets are masters of flatness–of that which is so seemingly mundane that its whole poetic effect relies on denying the usual “poetic” effects of poetry: haiku, imagism, objectivism, deadpan, all rely on not seeming to try at too hard to be poetic. But this is not a universal law. It is a convention. It as much a convention as rhyme and meter. It is not the spirit; it is the letter of a certain convention.

So a teacher must avoid teaching conventions as universal laws. If not, the student will become as blind as the teacher and adhere to a rule without ever considering why it is a rule. By the same token, a teacher who insists the students experiment and go hog-wild is also in danger of limiting the student to the letter, and not the spirit. Novelty for its own sake does not an original poem make. It might provide temporary relief from convention, but, when it is made a convention in its own right, it ceases to have value as anything more than a convention: “Hello, I am rebel. I do nothing conventional, and I don’t like anyone who does things conventionally. That, my dear, is my convention. Love me!” God, help us.

All conventions must be tested. All diversions must be tested. If I ran after those birds a hundred times, they would have scattered on the next run. Why? Because a large body moving at them with arms waving is certainly a threat. If they ignore me, they will run the risk of ignoring the dog or cat who comes and eats them. But a boy yelling King Lear is absent some of the exact mechanisms of a predator. We must teach our students to reinvent the wheel over and over again, to go back to origins and test them. Most importantly, a teacher must question his or herself. Do I like this poem because it is good, or because it affirms my ideas? Do I dislike this poem because it is bad, or because it is not my kind of good? Ethics in this sense are much more rare than rules of thumb. Rules of thumb were invented for those who have no intrinsic sense of ethics.

I want students to be obedient–fiercely obedient. I don’t want them to conform. When a true Cordelia enters my classroom, I know because, initially, I am annoyed. Such a creature refutes my laziness. When a conformist enters my class room either as a kiss-ass or as a professional nay-sayer I feel sad. How can I teach someone who conforms, but who can never obey? It is like a child who sees a field of birds, and does not run among them or even feel tempted. Someone has taught that child not to be a child. Someone has killed King Lear.

I dally. It is one of my strengths. I remember when I was ten years, driving to Boston in a groggy, once-flooded luxury Mitsubishi and telling my father, “Sire, it is summer, the windows are locked in the up position, and the engine’s heat is seeping through the vents.” He responded, “Your mind dallies, Thomas Charles Bair III; it is winter, the windows are rolled down, and the air conditioning is on. And do not contradict me.” “But sire, I am sweating and the juice you packed is boiling as though it were on a stove top.” “Young progeny, will you allow me none of long-driving’s natural silences? If you are warm, remove your jacket and your gloves and trim your beard. And if you are to contradict me again I will be forced to contact Authority Protection Services.” “That will not be necessary,” I replied, “your generous responses are truly my honor.

This is surely incontestable proof of my dallying. It may also hold some of the secrets to my method and purpose as to why I must go around with disposable gloves and a stick and gather the trash of this poem: I am full contradictions (as is the language of The Waste Land), and I am rude to my elders. That is, I am rude to my elders until they reference the local authorities, in which case I defer in reverence (The Waste Land has many authorities on file).

But I suppose my dallying is the reason I write on this ontologically paralyzing poem. Another anecdote: I first encountered TWL in school, duh. It seems until recently TWL was merely a mandatory furnishing of the English Literature 2 and American Literature 2 surveys, and it (TWL) was relatively proud of this standing. I, as I assume most people, encountered the poem in a sort of mad dash to move on to the “next literary movement.” But TWL, a radically condensed epic, refuses to be taught with any precision even in the three classes some teachers devote. How is the epic form reduced into something of nine pages (not counting the footnotes)? This is a question worth asking. TWL makes for an awkward Modern epic—too short and significantly odd to be passed over in a survey, too overbooked and promiscuous to be taught with certainty in a class or three.

More, the poem’s resolution enables professors to flee its fragments without worry. This resolution, that redemption is a wholly personal matter, that the TWL may not even be concerned with our the reader’s redemption, except that it provides us a heap of broken images, cracked voices, and a reading list is secondary to the other, more obvious conceit of the poem. Namely, that book learning (and only by happenstance aestheticism) unites the centuries, heals both cultural and personal trauma, and that the fundamental closedness that Postmoderns go on to high-five each other about for seventy-something years is a potentially redemptive thing. The following is the longest direct quote, aside from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in Eliot’s footnotes. It is written by F. H. Bradley, the philosopher on whom Eliot wrote his doctoral thesis:

My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it.… In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.

It should be noted that this quote is attached to the fifth section “What The Thunder Said,” line 411 in TWL. It comes while our hero is in a hole next to the “the empty chapel.” The thunder’s command comes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, thunder here vaguely signifying the coming of water, of renewal to the land (we will talk more about The Fisher King romances next time). In the Upanishad the command “Da” is given to the three orders of being—Gods, Humans, and Demons—and each hear different commands. The Gods hear Damyatta (Control), The Humans hear Datta (Give), and The Demons hear Dayadhvam (Sympathize). Significantly though, the reader of TWL receives all three commands—this works in synchronicity with Eliot’s “melting” of characters into one another throughout TWL.

This specific footnote arrives during the thunder’s command “Dayadhvam.” Eliot goes on to write the lines, “I have heard the key/Turn in the door once and turn once only/We think of the key, each in his prison/Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison/Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours/Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus.” He defines The Demon, The Godless One, as the one that is locked in (and according to F. H. Bradley we are all “locked in”). “The key,” that which offers itself as our freedom, is Eliot’s proof that we are indeed trapped in an opaque circle.

But what is most interesting here is that the condition of “locked in” necessitates the modality of sympathy. As if one were not possible without the other. Also consider–and here is the difficulty of translation–sympathy is not empathy, but the difference is subtle. Sympathy is a relationship between things wherein what affects one also affects its other. If one is sad, its other is also sad. Empathy is an intellectual projection that intertwines subject and object. If one is sad, its other understands its sadness.  That sympathy and not empathy is The Demon’s requisite function implies that The Demon must become its opposing circles, not understand them.

And what of the aetherial rumours? Given Eliot’s style, we must concede that asking these sorts of questions to TWL can only be vaguely correct. This is a prime example of Eliot’s masking. “Aetherial Rumours”?—a brittle façade. Eliot uses the techniques of symbolism to paint faces over his meaning, thus giving us the reader a candy shell that can’t be cracked. But it’ll dissolve if we lick it! Conjecture it is. Aetherial rumours translates to something like “holy, celestial chatter that we can’t necessarily prove true.” Given the structure and style, method of arrangement, and basic assumptions of TWL—namely, that ‘public ritual’ has lost all practical meaning fifteen years after Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the rise of popular atheism (Bertrand Russell is alluded to very early in the poem), the post-WWI ruins of Europe, the difficulties involved with romantic love not made any easier by the tattered and grossly sensual whinings of the romantics—these aetherial rumours, I argue, are the Arts and Prophets of times past.

Note that Eliot’s opaque circle is not described as having a limit to its width. By reading the classics, Eliot argues, one’s consciousness expands through time. It’s as though from Eliot’s perspective he stands in the present, and by grappling with the great works of times past, envelopes them, doubling the the radius of his circle into the past, and consequently into the future, minimizing his own, personal involvement with the creation of a thing. The trope of the Prophet is also a theme redoubled in TWL. What’s more, this is just about explicit in his essays. From “Tradition and The Individual Talent”:

. . . .What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

And if we consider ‘The Fragment” to be Eliot Prophet-Artist’s signature, at least in TWL, then, now looking back on the twentieth century, there is a case to be had.

There are many poets who enjoy disliking William Carlos Williams. He wrote poems that seem distinguished only by their adherence to the tossed off. They make no major claims. They seem jotted off.

So why study the man at all? First, it is hard to see Williams because he is everywhere, in all the schools of American poetry. He took the English conversational lyric as invented by Coleridge and developed by Wordsworth and turned it toward American speech patterns: OK, sure–the sense of a self consciously casual utterance, language that was wrought from a busy life and ranged between the phatic, the cranky, the ecstatic, the overt, and the obvious.

But we must pause at the word obvious. Stating the obvious is not easy. Human beings tend to mistake mystification for intelligence. Abstractions appeal to us. We forget that even “chicken” is an abstraction. It is a word for an animal. It is not the animal. So perhaps we only believe things have meaning when they have been twice abstracted: first by word denoting thing, then by word (which is symbol) implying something else in the verbal universe (word as symbol for thing plus word as symbol for abstracted word: chicken (thing) plus word chicken-symbol–plus chicken as truth, justice, and the American way). By this process, every word becomes “and”, a conjunction, that which separates as it joins, joining and separating from the thing it denotes and the moral, emotional, intellectual, and historical meanings it connotes. In short, our language becomes a process of mystifications which have lost their original purpose, or have revealed the hidden agenda of all mystifications: power and exclusion.

All street lingo, scholastic jargon, all supposed “verbal rigor” is meant to appeal to the initiated and to exclude the uninitiated (and this includes the language of those who feel excluded). Williams was not against this nearly airtight law of verbal action. He was practicing a new, or, rather, reconstituted rigor: the rigor of the obvious, contact with words for things as things made out of words–double contact, rather than double abstraction.

Williams wanted to make contact with the thing, and then make contact with the thing made out of words. He was not just interested, as in a Haiku, with rendering a thing’s “thingness,’ but he also wanted to make contact with it as a verbal construct, as a thing in its own right. He was interested in a poem as a thing made out of words–as an object, an actual artifact, something as tangible as a chicken. Williams was interest in type–in the words as they were placed upon the page. He was interested in the spacial orientation of type–the “just so” latent within the act of typing words upon a page.

If we know this about Williams, then we can assume three things that may be important to entering into any Williams poem:

1. Rigorous attention to the obvious.
2. Rigorous attention to The placement of the obvious as a “just so” upon the page.
3. The contact with the thing, and the enactment of the thing made out of words as a thing in its own right–which is a second contact. Double contact as opposed to double abstraction.

In this system, abstraction does not disappear, but is taken as the given. Kafka wrote: “the moment you write she looked out a window, you have already begun to lie.” Kafka is not being profound here. She is doing much more than looking out a window, but the artist has selected that one particular action to render in words. Selection is a lie of omission. Even when we tell a true story, we are omitting details. We call this focusing on the significant, but it is only significant because we say it is.

We have made a judgment. Our judgment is distorted by necessity. We have a story to tell. We are never in life, but always in a narration, a process of selection, placement, and applied meaning which we call consciousness. Williams has two aesthetic tasks: one, to be rigorous about the thing at hand in such a manner that we are temporarily taken out of our narrative, and thrust into a kind of “stupidity” before the object (I use stupidity in its full sense, not as lacking intelligence, but as being stunned out of intelligence for a moment, being stupefied, disengaged from one’s usual systems of applied meanings, narratives, and assumptions); and two, to enact a ritual of placement that does not echo a received truth, but becomes its own construct–that imitates the dynamic, and kinetic force of the organic, of “nature” as opposed to merely holding a mirror up to it.

The natural breath Williams advocated was not actual speech, but the artistic placement of everyday speech rhythms and lingo into a thing called a poem. Rather than the abstract twice abstracted, Williams desired the actual twice actualized–first as something one touched through words, and then as something one made (and unmade) out of words. This double actualization has its aporia, its own deconstruction in that one makes contact with the thing not to know it, but, rather, to use it as a new energy–to “unknow” it in the most vital way possible, and to construct a thing made out of words that will contain the energy of what one has “unknown.” To “unknow” chicken as word, is to make contact again with both the thing and the thing’s essential energy used to construct a new thing made out of words. Not a chicken or a chicken as symbolic truth–but a poem that has all the life and thingness of a chicken, and must be taken as it is–beyond paraphrase, beyond mere analysis of meaning, beyond the usual apparatus of mystification.

So, armed with some knowledge of the artist’s intentions, let’s apply these intentions to an actual William Carlos Williams poem.


A burst of Iris so that
come down for

we searched through the
rooms for

sweetest odor and at
first could not
find its

source then a blue as
of the sea

startling us from among
those trumpeting

1. Rigorous attention to the obvious. The title says “Iris.” The first line qualifies a “burst of Iris.” Things burst when their energy cannot be contained. So this is not an inactive iris. It is, in a sense, the ecstatic energy of the Iris–its “bursting.” Williams has made an event out of a flower–something we might notice as “Oh look at that–an iris, how pretty…where’s the orange juice?” Usually, we take decorative flowers for granted, especially upon awakening. He is drawing our attention to something we might take for granted. He is saying: “Look! Look! An Iris! Better yet…a burst of Iris! We have not seen it yet. We apprehend it, through the implication of smell, through its essential energy as a burst of fragrance. Here, selection creates the lie of omission in the best sense: the whole house has become alive to an iris. This is stupidity as I mean it: to be stunned out of rational priority–to make a big thing out of something we might not even notice. To be stunned into the obvious. We are told the “we” of the poem searches through all the rooms of the house. This is a lively contact with a flower indeed! Williams effusiveness over mundane and obvious things infuriates some. I find it delightful.

Next, we get “sweetest odor–“: the Iris dominates as an odor. They have yet to see the Iris, and when they do, it is not the Iris per se, but its blue: then a blue as/of the sea/struck.” So this Iris dominates the house without being seen, and when it is seen, it strikes, startles with its blue among its “trumpeting petals.” Smell becomes color becomes sound–a loud and vital awakening to the obvious!

2. A rigorous attention to the placement of the obvious as a “just so” upon the page. Well, the first line of every tercet is the longest, the second the next longest, and the last the shortest. This does not vary. It is a formal law peculiar to the poem. In addition, there is no real sentence or punctuation in the poem, yet its clarity cannot be questioned. This shape is played off against what is a sentence fragment–no sentence at all. The lack of punctuation is not sloppiness on Williams’ part here, but a vital aesthetic aid to the synasthesia and sense confusion of the poem. Everything, including the grammatical ambiguity of this poem is intentional–especially “that.” If the poem ended at “that” we would think “that” referred to the burst of Iris, but the stanzaic break adds odor at the beginning of the next stanza. Many free verse poets do stanzaic enjambment but it is too often done for neatness and symmetry rather than organic form’s sake. Williams bleeds the sense of the previous stanza into the next, but each stanza is truly its own organic moment within the body of the poem. This is true form.

3. Contact with the thing and the enactment of that contact with a thing as a thing in its own right. The whole of the poem is the contact with Iris, in all its sensual glory, as well as a mixing of the senses in an ecstatic apprehension of the flower. The poem proceeds and becomes its own thing by way of making contact with the Iris–with the artist’s apprehension of Iris. The word Iris functions then as a sort of conjunction between the thing called Iris and the poem called Iris–the thing made out of words.

Williams says what is before us–at this moment, and at this odd hour–is enough to make a vital poem, “by defective means.” And if we surrender ourselves to his intentions, we will discover a poet as deliberate in his art, and as eager to master it as any other great poet of the 20th century.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

IMAGE: Marco Munoz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or suppose you answered in what sounded like spy code:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another song I knew well as a little kid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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