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Poetry and Poetics

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

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

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

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

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

What is it about her poems that speaks to you?

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

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

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

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

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

Say more about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of objections do people have?

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

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

And respect…and distance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you spend your entire childhood in Harlem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I doubt if it makes any difference at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hölderlin and Psychosis: Filing the Empty Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

b bearhart

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Long

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

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

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

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

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

Jonterri Gadson

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dog in the Garage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

I will never get on in the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The retrospective sayings of the mystic become the regurgitated maxims of the pedant.

The mystical experience is ineffable, by definition, and yet mystics are invariably compelled to write. What the mystic writes after the fact is not meant to be systematic, comprehensive, or even an accurate representation of his mysticism. But leave it to the gate keepers to ruin the words of another. Pendants pilfer from the mystic’s coffers and reduce those marvelous and contradictory emotions to dogmatic maxims.

A verbal articulation of an entirely non-verbal experience necessarily falls short. What pedants do to the mystic, they also do to the poet. In both cases, clinging to footnotes, journals, and excessive psychoanalysis, the original experience (mystic or poetic) is concealed within a labyrinth of pseudo-intellectual criticism.

An excellent poem appears simple in its complexity, and above all easy in its difficulty. A poem appearing strained or artificial (though it is regularly both) is a failure.

While we marvel at the final product, any thought of the artist is secondary to the immediate experience of excellence. There seems to be something wrong with what so many critics do: reconstructing the scaffolding around the living poem, presenting the sketches and precursory plans for it until the life of the poem is altogether extinguished.

The problem is not what kind of followers performs the investigation, but the mere fact that they are following and not being their own leaders.  Here the singular and spontaneous sayings of the sage are reduced to religion.

Sages like Confucius spoke not absolute maxims but rather what the unique moment demanded, never to be repeated.  King Solomon did not mean for every child to be cut in two, or even for any child to be cut in two. And this is what made him wise: knowing what the present moment demanded and answering its call. What pedantic followers do is corrupt the original spontaneity of saints and sages to magico-mechanical maxims, a readymade “cure” for any situation.

Joe Weil wrote about these asinine “keepers” of a poet’s legacy in his piece The Inward Soul: Dickinson and St. Theresa of Avila:

Dickinson’s gate keepers make me vomit. Her worshipers make me want to kick them in the shins….To look for evidence of her sexuality is like 19th-century scholars looking for historic proof of Jesus.

What Christians do now – conservative and liberal – is to obsess over historical fact and both ignore the admonition to unconditional Love. I hope Ananda Coomaraswamy proves right: “Most likely Christianity also in the near future will succeed in breaking the ‘entangling alliance’ of religion and history, from which the mystics have already long emerged. There cannot be an absolute truth which is not accessible to direct experience.” We do not need the mediation of history or criticism to encounter what is omnipresent.

The “gate keepers” of religion and of poetry are one and the same.  The pedantic critic is blind, leading others into a pit of his own creation. The pedant (since he cannot see) ensures that no one else can see. The critic gouges out the eyes of the other. Similarly, Jesus condemned the false knowledge of the Pharisees: “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.”

Followers soften the ferocious words of the ones they follow into palatable household sayings – comfortable, no longer feral, no longer dangerous, no longer potent.  Civilized critics attempt to tame the God/Beast in the poet, saint, or prophet. It is the domestication of the saints which gnaws at the heart of this household idolatry. Their vitiated words may be present in a home, but their spirit is long absent.  No longer appalled, we are encouraged. By making these words ordinary and robbing them of all strangeness, we are robbed of actually encountering those words at all.

Daniel Silliman’s excellent blog captures this very spirit:

[R]ather than easy adoration, the first response to St. Francis would be to feel appalled, threatened and offended. It would mean wanting to tell St. Francis he’s wrong, wanting to disagree, wanting to fight.

What the sage says is not immediately tasteful. In fact, if you are not offended, you are probably no longer reading what that sage is saying. When Jesus is reduced to a comfortable position thanks to extensive speculative theology, we cease to hear his revolutionary sayings. In the same way, Siddhartha too is reduced to a God-man by lay buddhists and clergy alike – Jesus, Siddhartha, and Dickinson are all worshiped, but none are taken seriously.

Who actually hears the words of Jesus anymore? Perhaps it’s only those who have never heard all the retrospective explanations of Jesus who can hear him authentically.

Those who bastardize the spontaneous sayings of saints into comfortable maxims for coffee mugs make me want to kick them in the shins. I want to kick worshipers precisely because they make me not want to kick saints in the shins.

It’s not just others who do this (though it is, also) it’s always that clinging ego that is always mine which prevents me from encountering the words in front of me.  That egoic character might be in an Other, but that ego is always “mine” and solution is found in the spirit of the saints and sages.  To blame someone else for preventing me from entering the Kingdom of Heaven is for me to prevent myself. The best science occurs when ego is suspended (when “I” am removed from the equation). The most difficult thing to do is simply to let things be as they are.

When Jesus addresses the “rich young man” (in possessions, in knowledge, in morality), it is not simply physical possessions but the very sense of “mineness” which prevents the man from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. It is only by dying to self that we can enter heaven or enter a poem.

“For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” It is always only the “least of these” who can enter the kingdom of heaven. The weak, the ignorant, the poor – these are those who, because they have so little in terms of worldly possessions, can suspend their everyday sense of self and encounter the world as it really is: they can see Jesus, and they can read a poem.

If I suspend my ego, I can, at times, be transported into the work before me – despite the residue of criticism. It’s not easy to do the simplest of things.

And then Jesus is criticizing me and no one else, St. Francis provokes the self-defensive urge to kick his shins, and Dickinson I forget as long as I read her poems.

Seattle likes to pride itself on being one of America’s Most Literate Cities. I pay attention to these annual pronouncements for about 2 minutes when they inevitably make the news, or are posted on Facebook, and Seattle’s usually up there with Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. The thinking is that, what else are you going to do when it’s cloudy for the 99th day in a row? That’s also the excuse for the coffee consumption and suicide rate in Seattle, so locals can have their evening planned right off.

What interests me, however, is despite how literate it’s supposed to be here, Seattle got stuck in Modernism. Oh, we’re already way past the postmodern era in some ways, like when NPR interviewers with straight faces talk about how we’ll have a better quality of life in the future when we alter our genetics through some kind of bio-technology expertise. (Though I think that’s an extension of a modernist point of view. But a lot of people here buy that shit.) But when it comes to poetry, until recently, Seattle might as well have been in 1911. What’s interesting about this is that you might try to write that off as the West Coast of North America being a younger “civilization” than the East Coast cities of New York, Boston, Montreal, etc. But that leaves out San Francisco, with it’s Beat poets (a bridge from the modern to the postmodern) the Berkeley Renaissance (the first flowering of the postmodern on the West Coast) and the strong Language Poetry tradition. Not my cup of verse, but they (LangPoets) were trying for something different and many succeeded, though only time will sort out the wheat from the chaff there.

The notion of the West Coast as younger and less developed also leaves out Vancouver, which ate up postmodernism as soon as it started showing up there in the late 50s and early 60s with TISH and later the Kootenay School of Writing. Hell, Vancouver poet George Bowering half-jokes that Canada skipped right over modernism!

Portland had its Reed College innovators Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch and Leslie Scalapino. In the past decade the Spare Room series has given that town something exciting and Emily Kendall Frey’s new “occasional salon” The New Privacy promises to be open and innovative. Powell’s Books is, of course, a legendary indy bookstore and there are many interesting Portland magazines and presses, including the self-proclaimed maker and destroyer of books, Matt Stadler’s Publication Studios.

Seattle has had the UW, Theodore Roethke, Caroline Kizer, Richard Hugo, Heather McHugh, Linda Bierds, Sherman Alexie and a good many modernist poets who must be respected for their contribution, for their time in the vineyard, as it were, if not for their innovation. The UW has always been disconnected from the community outside the Blue Moon Tavern and some readings at the Hugo House, but that’s about it. Even Denise Levertov, who wrote some beautiful poems about Mount Rainier in her late life when she lived in Seattle, reverted to more of a modernist aesthetic when she lived here. Maybe it’s the water, or the legendary “Seattle Nice.” Google that, scroll past the inevitable airline ads and see what I mean by that phrase. It’s a veil for repressed anger, mostly and anger is often confused with passion and intensity, essential ingredients in innovative art. Lord, let’s not have any of that here! they (the locals) must think.

But what we lack in innovation (& there’s some of that here now, more later in this piece) we make up for in our connection to the East. There is a higher Asian population in Seattle than in East Coast cities. Two great quotes say it better than I can about this dynamic:

If I open a magazine of contemporary poetry I rarely hear John Dryden, but almost always Li Po.

– Andrew Schelling

… the Pacific Coast of America faces the Far East, culturally as well as geographically…

– Kenneth Rexroth

We know the Western cosmology of competition and domination has failed and is dying in a large way, perhaps taking humans (and many other species) with it. So it is only in this in this neck of the woods that we’d find someone like Sam Hamill, who has done much translation of classic Chinese and Japanese poetry, including what’s perhaps the quintessential translation of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior. It is a book which resonates with Seattle in so many ways. Sam’s never lived in Seattle, per se, but has been a presence here for 30+ years because he founded Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend. His latest, Habitations shows a deep sense of place, a deep Zen aesthetic and may be the best thing he’s ever done. And his work is rich with duende, content-wise, and seems to be just this side of the line that separates modernism and post-mod.

As for readings in Seattle, you have mostly the modernist-type affairs. The city’s writing center The Richard Hugo House, mostly follows a mainstream path, and has been turning toward a slam aesthetic to court younger attendees. Their Cheap Wine and Poetry Series packs their cafe every session and a spin-off, Cheap Beer and Prose has a similar popularity and in-your-face New York attitude, thanks to transplant Brian McGuigan. How cool is it that they’re sponsored by PBR? (Sing with me: What’ll ya have Pabst Blue Ribbon.) But it’s rarely made new there, but tends to be poetry as entertainment. Elliott Bay Books has been re-born in a new neighborhood, Capitol Hill, but the new reading room suffers from the footsteps of book browsers on the floor above. Still the offerings have a wide range as long as there is a book to sell.

Open Books, Seattle’s all poetry bookstore, one of only three in the U.S., has a wide variety of poetics represented and the proprietors are fine poets who know their stuff. A little narrow, room-wise, but that helps create an intimate environment, so turn off your god damned cellphone before you go in there or you’ll set the sprinklers off, or so I’m told.

Seattle Arts & Lectures is the big show in town and they had Robert Creeley once, many years ago, but now gets about as innovative as Gary Snyder, Patti Smith and Martin Espada, modernists all, and quite mainstream. Of course they have to fill bigger halls, but if Seattle were as literate as it claims to be, you think there would be more daring, more of a desire to help lead the masses to something more open and challenging. Here, we claim to love diversity, so grant programs seek out the bland middle of every ethnicity, and these programs tend to turn into EEO affairs and do not push the art forward. In fact one could make a case for the opposite.

Once upon a time there was Subtext. It lasted 15 years and once graced the old Speakeasy Cafe, which is still missed. A tiff with Hugo House, their later stomping grounds, turned them to a venue that was cavernous and off the beaten path and the joy was sucked out of that series. While it lasted it did present the most innovative locals with an out-of-towner. From their blog, gathering digital dust over the last two years, here are but a few of the features:

David Abel, Will Alexander, Charles Alexander Charles Altieri, Rae Armantrout Eric Baus, Dodie Bellamy, Anselm Berrigan, blackhumour, Robin Blaser, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Jaap Blonk, Christian Bok, Curtis Bonney, Charles Borkhuis, George Bowering, Jules Boykoff, Joseph Bradshaw, Jonathan Brannen, David Bromige, Rebecca Brown, Lee Ann Brown, Laynie Browne, Mary Burger, Clint Burnham, Gerald Burns, Avery Burns, David Buuck, Brian Carpenter, Tyler Carter, Maxine Chernoff, Don Mee Choi, Susan Clark, Allison Cobb, Alicia Cohen, Norma Cole, Jen Coleman, Steve Collis, Daniel Comiskey, Lucy Corin, Martin Corless-Smith, Steve Creson, Michael Cross, Peter Culley, Crystal Curry, KT Cutler, Beverly Dahlen, Jean Day, Christine Deavel.

And this only gets us into the “D’s” so you get the idea. That list looks better with time.

There still is no answer to Red Sky Poetry Theater, a legendary open mic which died in 2005 after a 25 year run, the longest on the West Coast in that time. One person said: “There are a lot of open mics in Seattle, but Red Sky’s a poetry reading.” It was a workshop for many poets, myself included, and regulars included Marion Kimes, Charlie Burks, Paul Hunter, Judith Roche, Willie Smith, Carletta Wilson, Steve Potter, Jesse Minkert, Roberto Valenza, Phoebe Bosche (of Raven Chronicles fame),  Robin Schultz, Belle Randall, Denis Mair (a prodigious translator of Chinese poets), Margareta Waterman (& her own Oregon-based press,Nine Muses), David Whited and others.

Our own SPLAB is a venue that seeks to build community through shared experience of the spoken and written word. We have a weekly writer’s critique circle (Living Room) and the visiting poets we’ve had since re-launching in Seattle’s diverse Columbia City neighborhood include Michael McClure, Nate Mackey, C.A. Conrad, Cedar Sigo and Brenda Hillman, so I guess you can stick us in the Black Mountain meets The Salish Sea poetic territory.

The latest glimmers of hope come from three sources. The first is a brand new reading that, according to organizers happens: “in conventionally too-small spaces, occurring around Western Washington. Basements. Attics. Vans. Coffee stands. The head of a pin. Lovingly curated by Graham Isaac and Rachel Hug.” It is called, oddly enough, Claustrophobia. They’ve had only one session, but it is promising. Second is a new indy publishing house called, perfectly, Dark Coast Press, which has threatened to make a splash in the poetry world, but whose soul is that of a poet, Editor Jarret Middleton. Expect them to do big things in poetry. The second glimmer comes from a reading series created by three guys who met at SPLAB and are, would you guess, recent transplants from “back East” as we say. New York, Philly and Virginia by way of Utah, exactly. These guys have collaborated to create The Breadline. (They chose the name months before the Occupy movement created its new Hoovervilles, or Obama-villes we might call them.) Mixing Slam, LangPo, music, Oulipo, Butoh and even the occasional Appalachian story-teller or molecular biologist, this monthly series is wildly popular and is just figuring out how to sustain  itself. An off-shoot of that reading was an homage to John Cage called Communications Silence, which was well-attended and very well-regarded in the local press. It demonstrated that there is a base here for something more real, more daring and more satisfying. Maybe now we’re growing up.

Here’s a question: What to do with (how to view) a poem you can’t help but think of as perfect?

Here’s one that falls in that category for me, “The Doe” by C. K. Williams, a latter-day sonnet:

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun shining through
transformed to a color I’d only seen
in a photo of a child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.

Now let me qualify “perfect.” I don’t ask perfection to include striking innovation or veining a mine with new nugget. Good thing, because this poem is drippingly conventional. It’s definitely not McHugh-tragicomic or Joron-machine-surreal. It’s no New Sentence or newer freedom. But it does exactly what I was raised to think a poem is supposed to do: make my mouth water discovering its words, make my mind water discovering their meaning, and hurt me. The hurt is key. As the Greeks said, learning is suffering. So here is pain’s perfect translation-as-projection-and-or-illustration, for any deciduous-woods walker process-walking through some anguish or melancholy. Who doesn’t see a deer in the right light and feel all failings come to the fore—yours, the world’s, someone’s in between—especially when something hard has happened? (Maybe hunters don’t, or maybe they do before they don’t.)

But the perfection goes deeper (gets worse) than that. Look at the craft of the thing. From the opening anaphora on, you get the sense that each word was considered on its merits in some plenary session. Each lifted like Larkin’s votive glass of water, to congregate the any-angled light, just so. The brush crackles, the afternoon-oblique sun rakes, the alarm is incipient. Brush echoes dusk’s muffle. “I in disquiet” loudly pleads. “The suffering of someone I loved” quietly rubs. Late, rake, and pain, assonant, hit the final plangent note. There’s also a smart pair of -ings: suffering and reddening, neither too close together to seem contrived, nor too far apart to seem unrelated. And the reddening begins, early in the second stanza, to give us plenty of time to redden further (past Life magazine’s, or 2001’s, baby photo), slowly toward that burgundy finish. Even the word, rest, comes just when a slight pause is needed, to dehisce pain from itself, into pain that pain releases and pain that recognition keeps.

But it’s not just the words that are choice, it’s the movements and symmetries that are seamless. “Near dusk, near a path, near a brook” is reflected (in cadence) at the end of the octave by “in a photo of a child in a womb.” Meanwhile “Near dusk, near a path, near a brook” zooms in; “Nothing else stirred, not a leaf, / not the air” zooms out. Back at the last two lines, if we separate “the rest” and “stayed” from the rest of the words, as syntax tempts us to, a question presents itself: Which stayed more, the rest or the unrest? Both about equally, the poem answers in its ultra-efficiency.

I feel almost cheated, hoodwinked, like a focus group conspired to write a poem I couldn’t find fault with. So let me return to the opening question: What to do with (how to view) a poem you can’t help but think of as perfect?

And what if your idea of perfection makes you worry that you might be pretty boring, at bottom? I could say, well, the innovation here is to need none—to out-Frost Frost, if you like. Yet there’s always something innovative, if you look hard enough. For example, the octave doesn’t hit the sestet with any tension, as it’s usually expected to, but rather with a mild (perhaps mildly tense) stillness. The real tension happens halfway through the sestet, which is visually broken into tercets—to mirror riven pain?

But here’s the thing: I’m bored by trying to convince you, if that’s what I’m doing, that “The Doe” isn’t boring. What have I said beyond that it’s well crafted, emotionally savvy, and (to boot, in the good sense) self-aware? “Boring” isn’t much of an objective criterion, of course. (Boring’s boring apology?) The truth—as it tends to reduce—is that this poem came along when I needed a poem like it, a few years ago, having walked in the woods feeling sorry for a friend, never having thought to imagine my pain as both divided against itself and capable of self-kindness.

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

Pete Winslow is a very minor Beat surrealist poet who died young and only published a few books, including Monster Cookie, which contains this short poem, “The Dada Scarecrow”:

Two crossed sticks in a field
This is the dada scarecrow
The crows gather around to wonder at it
No straw no old clothes
No floppy hat like scarecrows wear
Just two crossed sticks in a field
And a real man suspended naked
From its arms.

When reading poems, it’s always good to ask yourself how your expectations and assumptions about the poem changed throughout. This is essential with a poem that has a “shocker” ending like this one. Once the sticks become a Roman cross, it’s impossible to see the first six lines without Christ’s crucifixion in mind, which almost irreparably cuts you off from your initial reactions and thoughts.

Before I got to these last two lines my thought process went something like this: Two sticks in a field is quite Dadaist—it is a humorous and effective appropriation of an iconic America object into an “art object,” and, like Dada, it is the “act” of art that creates social and ideological implications without breeching political contexts topically. operates totally in the realm of symbolism.

And I saw the scarecrows. The crows can be taken literally, suggesting, intriguingly, that other animal species can, to however slight a degree, encounter Dada art like we do. Why not? Animals are aware of changes to their environment; they can sense when something an object is alien to its context and demands observation; and they might even be confronted with the inability to interpret such phenomenon. We go beyond this, of course, to conceptual analysis. Nevertheless, like these gawking crows, successful Dada art initially makes us ask, “What is it?” before we realize it is “art.”

These aspects of the poem, though, become background noise after Winslow blows up the poem with the final image. Suddenly, the harmless, funny dada scarecrow (which I took as being merely two sticks—without a doll or a body) becomes a horrific, perverse encounter. The metaphor creates all sort of implications that critics explore, but what is most interesting to me, though, is how the metaphor doubles back on itself and becomes a commentary on Dadaism. Christ is here “the Dada scarecrow,” a Dada artist who confronts his society directly and viscerally. And there is sense in which the crucifixion was a conceptual frame-breaking event dramatically changing human consciousness. In the religious iconographic sense, the crucifixion must be seen in a variety of incompatible ways. It is both art and not art, both something that must be gazed at and something that resists and delimits aesthetic distance. Similarly, Dadaism is re-seen as having unique and expansive metaphysical meaning, as affecting a paradigmatic shift in reality (in opposition to the popular view of Dadaism as “throw-away” art). Like the crucifixion, Dadaism, the poem suggests, transgresses and transforms through radical action that is simultaneously “art” and ideology.

If the Dadaist is a Christ figure and Christ is a Dada figure, they share the status of the cultural martyr. This might be seen as an aspect of Winslow’s Beat identity since the Beats’ premier metaphor for self-representation was the victimized prophet figure who willing subjects his body (and mind) to violence for the sake of humanity.

Finally, it’s important to appreciate the basic act of “re-seeing” at the heart of the poem. The conceit is simple: Winslow surveys the American landscape and changes utilitarian objects into symbols of the collective unconscious. The operation of framing “found” objects into aesthetic space may be one of the oldest techniques in recent history, but it’s one of the basic premises of modern poetry and surrealism.

The other night I was sitting in this old decrepit rocker. It belonged to my grandfather, Thomas Joseph Brennan, and it was never distinguished–even new. It was a rocker/ recliner, with a little wooden lever that would allow you to lie back, almost as if on a bed. It was the sort of chair working class people purchased on the way up along with the upright spinet to prove they were no longer poor. It goes with doilies. It goes with old black and white TV commercials speaking about the joys of a mild smoke. It still bears a ring here or there where my grandfather forsook the coaster under his beer.

I never met my grandfather. He died in 1954, four years before I was born. He died of a kidney disease brought on by over 30 years in the Standard Oil gas works. I was told by my mother he was artistic. He built his own coy pond, read poetry aloud to his children, and insisted on hot soup and the rosary everyday of his life. I have a picture of him in my living room, and he brandishes an amused half smile–a triumphant look. Well he should. He went into the gas works at age 9, and most of his family had died by the time he was 18. The man earned his rocker/recliner. Somehow, I ended up with it. When I was little, I would recite poems to his photo. He always seemed pleased.

So I sat there at the end of the day with a copy of Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. Like the rocker/recliner, this edition had gold leaf to prove to a working man that he was no longer poor. Outside the window, a chickadee gave forth with its sad song which I have always interpreted as: “I’m sorry… Please forgive me.” A cardinal said “Pew. pew, pew!” and, considering his beauty, he had every right to feel arrogant. The room was just dark enough to call for a soft light. I read this great poem, which I have read over a hundred times, and perhaps, because I had three broken ribs, a kidney stone, a cyst on my ass the size of Topeka, and had downed a pain killer, I wept. I didn’t just cry judicious, moist at the border of my eyes tears; I cried in big heaving sobs, with tears fat enough to pass for minnows, and I fell out of the rocker onto my knees.

“OH drooping star in the west.” This is the line that got me. If you know the poem, you’ll know Whitman does what the great filmmaker John Ford suggested: have three good scenes and no bad ones. Whitman has three central emblems (Images): The mocking bird, the sprig of Lilac, and the drooping star in the west. From these three, he weaves one of the greatest poems ever written, certainly one of the greatest public elegies (for Lincoln). Think of it in MFA terms. It takes guts just to put stars in a poem, but to have a drooping star? Only the best readers, only readers who have looked closely at Lilacs, would know their clusters are comprised of hundreds of little flowers that are shaped somewhat like stars. Whitman had made a bridge between the pathetic sprig of Lilac he had picked in the poem to offer to Lincoln’s funeral procession, and the one star in the western sky–the Illinois to which his beloved Lincoln was heading. He had united microcosm to macrocosm, and in such a true and unapologetic manner that it made all the workshop comments, and general business of poetic craft beside the point. If I had been conducting a workshop and some smart student had piped up and said: “this image does not make sense,” I would have hit her or him, and kicked them until they had three broken ribs, and said “Shame on you! A poet has just made a bridge between the lilac sprig he holds in his hand and the star in the west, and of course it is drooping because it is about to descend below the horizon, and the beloved is dead: and shut the fuck up!”

The truly great poems move beyond talent and craft and intelligence, and yes, I still believe in greatness–maybe just to piss off knee jerk post-modernists. Such poems go where we are too ashamed and too tasteful to travel. Vulnerable, fifty three, hurting, drugged, I felt I had encountered this poem for the first time. I started to cough, which is not good when you have three broken ribs. My wife came into the room to see if I was OK. I had my Aunt Mary’s afghan wrapped around me. I told my wife: “Emily, I am being an idiot. I was reading a poem by Whitman and had a moment. Don’t worry. Go back to your office and write a poem.”

When I had recovered myself, and re-assumed the chair, I finished this poem. Then I went outside to look at the huge Silver Maple which had lost two major limbs this winter. I looked at the Lilac bush in my yard which, at this time of year, is as ugly as a bald bird. I wished I could have seen a star, but this is Binghamton, and cloud cover is the rule. I felt my ribs move. So be it. I went back into the room and sat down with the afghan over me, and looked at the picture of my grandfather who had died four years before I was born. I thought: “you must have been a good and strange man. You built a coy pond and didn’t get mad at the little children in the neighborhood who would try to fish there when they thought no one was looking. You raised ten children, and you had hot soup every day of your life. My mother said you were artistic, and you painted Christmas scenes on the windows of your house every year by hand. You watched six men gunned down by goons in a strike at Standard Oil. You watched your whole family die. You had a fourth grade education and taught yourself how to read poetry, and you wrote a letter back to Ireland for every immigrant who died and who could not read. I wish I could have known you. I wish I was half the person you were.” And I thought, of all the people on earth, my grandfather would have understood why I fell off that chair and wept. And he would have had a beer with me, and recited a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, the way he recited to my mother when she was a little girl, the way she recited to me. Perhaps we would have wept together–and not out of mere sorrow, but because something in the world is triumphant before us and beyond us, and in spite of us, and it will heal–even if we never do.

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

Here’s a poem by Bob Kaufman. It’s what happened to many of the Beats:


A cincoprhenic poet called
a meeting of all five of
him at which four of the
most powerful of him voted
to expel the weakest of him
who didn’t dig it, coughing
poetry or revenge, beseech-
ing all horizontal reserves
to cross, spiral and whirl.

Rejection of social norms and ideologies is pervasive throughout Bob Kaufman’s work and is represented in the anti-conformity and “rejectionary philosophy” of Abomunism, a thinly veiled term for the beatnik culture of which Kaufman was a part. This process of differentiation comes at a cost, however, alienating the rebel from his cultural and ideological context. This necessitates a search for alternative contexts and discourses to provide interpretative frameworks for experience. One may search outward, looking for principles independent of the rejected ideology. This option is reflected in Kaufman’s interest in eastern philosophy and mysticism, an interest shared by many of the Beats. Alternatively (or additionally), one may turn inward toward the self as a repository of memories and thoughts to reinvent the world in a more holistic, coherent fashion.

The turn inward is complicated, however, by the proliferation of mediated images and experiences of modern society, and the poet finds in himself many aspects of the American social landscape that he longs to escape and transform. Problematically then, the self is implicated in the reality he rejects, and the struggle to transform America becomes approximate to reinventing the self. Thus, the poet finds himself at war with himself as he attempts to contain contradictory identities.

The negative manifestation of this dilemma is the poet’s frustration, which often takes the form of a variety of mental illness, such as schizophrenia and insomnia. Schizophrenia offers an apt trope of the self torn into multiple, conflicted identities, and Kaufman employs the pathology as a metaphor for society as well.

In addition to illustrating the dynamics of the relationship between Beat culture and political forces, the “cincophrenic” is the poet himself, one who is at war with himself, thus illustrating the reciprocal relationship between the poet and society. In this poem, poetry exists as protest and results from the conflict between conflicting identities. It is resistance itself (“revenge”) and generates chaotic energy (“cross, spiral and whirl”). Society and the poet are interchangeable frames of reference, and the contradictions of society are manifested in the poet as forms of madness.

de Toucqueville pretty much makes it understandable to me why I have not had my poetry embraced by The Paris Review or the so called gods of literary merit. He writes, conjecturing on a literature created by people of means and leisure (aristocrats):

Moreover, the long and peaceful enjoyment of such wealth will have induced a certain softness of thought and feeling, and, even in their enjoyments, they will avoid anything too unexpected, or too lively. They would rather be amused than deeply moved; they want to be interested, but not carried away.

This passage explains to me why I have often been shunned by grad students, and fellow writers–why my books are reviewed, often positively and as a form of qualified praise, as exalting the ugly and the incongruous. This explains to me why some of my best students, while learning everything they could, never showed the slightest inclination to respect me as a poet. My work is not “amusing.” I don’t like middle and neutral registers of speech for their own sake, do not find them comforting, nor will I embrace fake experimental poems that are “different” in the same way everyone else is different (Projection by field theory, non-linear progression anyone?). Although the middle class sees a huge difference between Fence and Prairie Schooner, I don’t. One publishes polished, within the norm experimental language poetry, and the other publishes polished, within the norm non-experimental poetry, and both do not venture into any nomenclatures, syntax, or diction beyond the usual careful and self-conscious MFA program. I do not consider them refined, but, rather, bland to the point of putting me to sleep. Most of the elite lit mags out there now, no matter what “camp” they belong to, share one thing in common: bland-speak, a fully professional and neutral register of speech that is intelligent, refined, competent, and devoid of poesis. Alexis de Tocqueville was writing in 1848, pre-Whitman, about an American literary scene that could not stop imitating the worst “aristocratic” pretentions of the Europeans, especially the British. He could very well be describing what passes for “excellence” in American poetry at this moment. Sad… Here’s some more excerpts:

It will sometimes happen that men of means, seeing none but themselves, and only writing for themselves, will entirely lose sight of the rest of the world, and that will make their work far fetched and sham. They will impose petty literary rules for their exclusive use, and that will gradually make them lose first common sense, and then contact with nature.


…wanting to talk a language different than the vulgar, they will end up with a brand of aristocratic jargon which is hardly less far from pure speech than the language of the people.

de Tocqueville is conjecturing on an aristocratic literature. Academic poetry has always embraced such an ideal, even when supposedly attacking it. Alexis goes on to prohesy that an American literature sprung truly from the soil of democracy would be lively, but unrefined, poor on rules of thumb, sacrificing refinement to vitality. He claims (and I think rightly) that the great moments in literature for any nation come during the transition periods, the brief but dynamic wars–in this case between aristocratic and democratic influenced literature. Just six years later, Leaves of Grass would make its appearance amid a flowering of works by Emerson, Thoureau, the New England Brahmins, and, at the same time, the first great regionalists, and the far more democratic and “vulgar” writters of the west (Mark Twain). de Toucqueville’s analytical abilities border on demonic intuition. I’ll leave you with a final excerpt in which he writes of a literature born of democracy:

By and large the literature of the democratic will never exhibit the order, regularity, skill, and art characteristic of aristocratic literature; formal qualities will be neglected if not despised. The style will often be strange, incorrect, overburdened and loose, and almost always strong and bold. Writers will be more anxious to work quickly than to perfect details. Short works will be commoner than long books, wit than erudition, imagination than depth. There will be a rude and untutored vigor of thought with great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will strive to astonish more than to please, and to stir passions rather than to charm taste.

Alexis could be defining the warring camps of advocates for the cooked and the raw, the formalists or the beats, the academics or the spoken word artists. He had us down to a science before we became us! He also is smart enough to submit these are extreme views of two tendencies, and to present the fact that there will be many gradations between these two poles, and some of the best writers will arise from the dynamic of these tensions rather than from embracing one or the other way.

Reading de Tocqueville is a lesson in astonishment. In a few pages he did much to clarify for me what the problems confronting American poetry, and my own poetry are. In my case, I am neither academic nor Spoken word, meaning both camps both encourage me yet consider me unpolished (or too polished). At any rate, I can’t recommend a book enough–especially if you want a measured, sober,intelligent guide to your own country.