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Dust of Snow

Robert Frost

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

A student, choosing to write a two page paper on this poem, quoted a critical authority who had managed, by the magic of stupidity, to turn it into a comment on racism. The crow is not described as black, and this apparently, is Frost’s way of saying that such stereotypes are evil. Now how this interpretation could exist is beyond me, but what could the teacher say to the student? The critic is stretching her own agenda beyond all proper bounds? Well, I wasn’t the teacher, so I told him that. I said: “experts can be stupid, too, you know… especially when they are trying to shove everything into their own theory, even if it does not fit.” The kid went on for two pages about racism and Frost’s remarkable foresight given that he had lived in a lilly white section of new England. His essay never quoted the poem.

We can go any number of ways, some of them might even include the actual poem,but what of it? If we know something about the literary tradition pertaining to crows, we can see the crow as a trickster, an intelligent creature who likes to cut the unsuspecting down to size.In a sense, even a sane interpretation of this poem is a distortion of it. Even if we go all Brooks and stick strictly to the poem at hand, as if nothing else by Frost existed, as if historical context and the life of the poet did not matter, we would still offer only a distortion. Interpretation is distortion. Some distortions are useful. They makes sense. They offer a new way of entering the poem, of understanding and enjoying it. Others make us shake our heads in dismay, but all interpretations are digressions and re-writings of the text. It is unavoidable. And this is what a poet should keep in mind: when we have an “idea” for a poem, a desire to do something or express something in a poem, the poem must win over the idea or both will be lost. An idea for a poem is always a competing poem. So, instead of just editing our poems after the first draft, we should do a close reading. And it is sometimes helpful to refer to ourselves as “the poet.” What is the poet trying to do here, and why, and how? What is his agenda? I am going to take a poem I admire by one of my students, Melissa Liebl, and model this method of first revision:

She lifts her
sharp collar bones
in a shrug
the rain so hard
the spaces between
form cups
and fill
I lean toward
the edge of her body
to sip
and one sweet
and turn
defers me to
the air

So what can we say about the poem at first glance? It is short, and thin, never more than five words per line. This might be considered the law peculiar to this poem. The longest line is five words. Given the rules the poem implies, is five too long? I re-write the poem, shortening the five word line just to see what happens.

I look at it visually and decide the poet is justified in having that five word line because, otherwise, the poem is too funnel shaped. So why so short, and so thin? Re-reading it I think: it’s a single action, a brief moment, and it would not make sense to have the poem any longer or fatter than it is. I comb through my thinning memory bank and think of two poems by Williams: “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” and “The Locust Tree in Flower” (second version). Ok, the single gesture, the sense of a small and intimate moment justifies the choice of line and proportion. Good.

Now, I ask myself: what is the sonic action of the poem? Experience has taught me that a writer often goes wrong in a poem in terms of lineation and sonics before any other failing. So I investigate the sounds. Ah, two sibilants (s) one in initial and the other in terminal position! One has the h added to create the “sh” sound. Only the first vowel sound is pronounced– high e, the highest pitched vowel in the language. So “she” is the star in sonic as well as narrative terms. The i in lifts and the e in her are muted. There’s a labial in the L of lifts. So, in terms of sound, the chief action so far is muted vowels, and sibilants,as well as a labial.This creates softness, euphony, a sense of the delicate– as much as what she says. The meaning is also in the sound! Will this be the case once more in the next couple lines?

Yes! Here’s comes “sharp,” (sh again), here comes L in the medial position (collar), but note: there’s now a hard c, and the ominous arrival of plosives: p in sharp, and b in bones. The vowels have also gone a little violent here with the two “ar” and the one”Oh sounds. There is a subtle form of what I call ghost rhyme going on. At the sonic level, a lot is happening. Let us continue:

Following this trail of sounds we find out that S and sh are the stars, with a brief but memorable cameo appearance of plosives, and the lowest vowel sound in the English language: “Uh.” “In a shrug.” H also figures in all its many guises. The question is why?

Here’s a nice conjecture: if there is a turn in the poem, I bet the s and sh sounds go away, and if there is a return or climax, I bet they show up again. One more thing about the plosives: this is hard rain. it no doubt “pelts.” Now, let’s see if the s sounds disappear:

Voila! They, indeed, do. In the middle section of the poem, for three and a half lines, there are no further s sounds until the word sip. Fricatives appear in form and find. Also, dentals show up in the t and d sounds.: Sip, sweet, sigh, and then for the very last lines, our hero, the s sound is gone forever, replaced by the rise of the dentals in sweet, turns, defers, and to. If we reduced the poem to only its s sounds in initials position we’d get:She sharp shrug spaces sip sweet sigh.

Turn that into two sentences: “She sharply shrugs. Spaces sip sweet sighs”. The s sounds alone almost carry the tale. So I say: this writer, however unconsciously, was moving through the sonic as well as the narrative fairy tale of her poem. The ghost rhymes, and effects are so subtle, no one but a nut job like me might notice them, but this is the pleasure of poetry when you stop paying attention to only what the poem means.

Now, onto the grammar: the poem has no punctuation. To me punctuation controls the speed at which beauty moves through the room. If there is no punctuation, two questions must be asked: are the lines well enough constructed, and lucid enough using only the white space to justify no punctuation? Question two: if there is a grammatical ambiguity created by the lack of punctuation, does that ambiguity lend a greater possible meaning to the poem, and is it justified by the law of greater complexity (rather than mere confusion)? Is the writer conscious of the effect (ok. That is a third question)? So I put punctuation in: She lifts her sharp collar bones in a shrug, the rain so hard the spaces between form cups and fill.” A nun would kill me for that sentence because, if read in terms of grammar, the spaces could refer to the rain or the collar bones. How would you “fix” that? She lifts her sharp collar bones in a shrug, the rain so hard, the spaces between her collar bones form cups and fill.” Too wordy.

Definitely, this is not prose, and, in spite of the ambiguity, I’d let it stand as is. This is a complex sentence with the greater part of its length given to the dependent clause. The lineation, and white space, by breaking the parts up, actually helps rather than hinders, and so it is justified. Now the next sentence is compound: “I lean toward her body to sip, and one sweet sigh and turn defers me to the air.” The “and” is a beautiful pivot here. Because, in the poem, there is no punctuation, I initially thought the speaker of the poem was turning and sighing, which, in emotional terms, she is, but it is the object of her attempted sip who turns and sighs. This is nice. This is using uncertainty to best advantage. Ok. Finally, possible objections to the poem:

There are vulgar readers who will ignore all these virtues and say: so what? What’s the ontology of the poem? The ontology is rejection, but a rejection so soft and nuanced that it is also an unforgettable gesture. The speakers action is also an impulse, a reflex of the moment The use of the verb “defer” gives both the hint of rejection and the sense of a course diverted, not a final rejection. Wonderful! If she had written “leaves,”instead of “defers” I, too, might be tempted to say: “Nice poem, but so what?” Delicacy, if it be truly there, defeats philosophy, and thwarts despair. We do not ask the ontology of a swallow swooping at dusk. So, I give this student an A. And now some assignments:

1. Go over one of your poems the way I just went over this. See what you might discover that you didn’t realize.
2. Decide that a certain number of sounds will be threaded through your poem. Let their appearance and disappearance mimic a turn or change of meaning.
3. Read “Fine Work With Pitch and Copper,” and “The Locust Tree in Flower.” Try to render a single moment, bereft of punctuation, but in such a way that the white space, and the mabiguity will increase the possible meanings.
4. Go and read some favorite poems, and forget the meaning for a moment. Enter them through sound, through detail. Then return to meaning and meditate on how closely sound shadows sense. Good luck.

The history of my reading life (and I consider it a life, somewhat independent of my so-called “real” life) has been littered with strange and utterly intuitive encounters with what now seem, in retrospect, the very things I needed. And so, when I had just turned fourteen, and was well-built and morose, and spent long hours staring in moody silence at nothing in particular (perhaps a pimple), I came upon a poem by a dead French man (or maybe he was Polish, or a gypsy, or an alien come down from the stars) named Apollinaire. A cousin had left it on our kitchen table. She was “in college” and planning to be a nurse. She came back for it only at exam time– such was her disdain. By then, I had cached it away in my underwear drawer, and the pain of giving it back to this nurse pending was palpable. The book contained Apollinaire, and George Trakl and Rilke, and I think it was an anthology of 20th century European poetry, but that detail is lost. What caught me first, and last, and has stayed with me for 38 years is a poem by Apollinaire called Le Pont Mirabeau (Mirabeau Bridge):

Under the pont Mirabeau flows the Seine
Our loves flow too
Must it recall them so
Joy came to us always after pain

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

Facing each other hand in hand
Thus we will stand
While under our arms’ bridge
Our longing looks pass in a weary band

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

Love leaves us like this flowing stream
Love flows away
How slow life is and mild
And oh how hope can suddenly run wild

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

May the long days and the weeks go by
neither the past
Nor former loves return
Under the pont Mirabeau flows the Seine

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

I must describe the physical sensation this poem had on me. It was a hot and humid day, and the house was full of fans whirring, and flies buzzing, and no one was home. My mother and father were out shopping. My sister was with them. My brother was off somewhere putting hickies on the neck of his girlfriend. I lay on my bed, trying to find the cool spot on the pillow, sun burned, a little feverish, and goose bumps rose on my skin because I knew this poem was true. I did not know what the particular truth was, but there it was–in all its sad and whimsical, and undeniable glory–light, and yet heavy as a stone you have just plucked from the bottom of a river. What grabbed me was the way that, each time the refrain returned, everything had somehow changed, as if the laws of repetition led not to regularity, but had, instead, provided the pulse, the throb of what can never be fixed, made stable, made “whole.” I read it again, and on the second reading, I was even more excited. As is my habit, I just kept reading it until my mother yelled up the stairs for me to come down and help bring in the groceries. It was now as if I had a mistress upstairs, and everything in the universe was interfering with my hidden love. I knew I must behave myself, and the attempt to “behave” myself, triggered my mother’s intuition: “What’s wrong, Joseph? Are you sick?”

I guess I had that startled look, as if I had been caught at something (masturbation, grand theft auto, making moody faces in the mirror), I said: “I feel a little weird.” She said: “Lay down for a few hours. Don’t go in the pool. Rest up, Joseph.”

And so I had more time with the poem, all the time I wanted. I memorized it. I took it with me on my bike. I brought it with me down to the deserted train tracks glutted with chicory weed and Queen Ann’s lace, and old shoes, and used condoms. It seemed at home there. I waited for the Angelus to ring at six o’clock, from all the churches of Elizabeth, and I said the poem aloud. Poetic truth can not be pinned down, and I already knew that. It is a pulse under things– not the things themselves. Years later, when I spoke to my students about the use of refrain, I said it was all about “circular transformatives”– circling back to see how everything has changed, how the repetition gives a pulse to movement– not a stop, but a pulse. This is the power of song, and music. The return, if justified, creates rather than impedes suspense. I used this poem as an example, and I also used a song I first heard done by Johnny Cash called Long Black Veil:

Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
Someone was killed ‘neath the town hall light.
I wasn’t there, but they all agreed that the slayer who ran
Looked a lot like me.

And she walks these hills in a long dark veil,
She visits my grave when the night winds wail.
Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows but me.

The judge said son, what’s your alibi?
If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die.
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life.
I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife,

And she…

Every time the refrain returns, it has a new significance. This is the true value of repetition in a poem. So here’s my assignment: Write a poem with a refrain. Don’t just repeat it for the sake of refrain, but use it for its force of suspense. Listen to Long Black Veil, or read this wonderful poem by Apollinaire, and keep reading it until you soak in how the same words can have a slightly different, yet profound effect each time they return. Good luck.

This morning, after waking up earlier than usual and drinking the gas station coffee that my husband bought for me (I love gas station coffee), I settled into the enormous chair at my desk in front of my computer.  Suddenly, I had no idea what I meant to do.  It occurred to me that if a poet or writer is to develop discipline, he or she must have some sense of assignment.  And so bereft of direction or purpose, I called downstairs to my husband and asked him to provide me with an assignment.  He said, “Write an essay on Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight,’ and enter the poem in a new way.”  It sounded interesting to me, but ultimately too huge of a project to suddenly launch into at 6:30 in the morning.

The truth is that as writers and poets, we all discover what it is that we want to write about by what presents itself to us as a deviation from an assignment, or a method of getting around an assignment in order to actually fulfill the assignment.  I needed my husband to provide me with an assignment, not because I wanted the confinement of specificity or structure, but because I needed the inspiration to begin from somewhere, even if where I began was completely unrelated to the assignment.  From where does a poem arise?  I think for each of us, our poems are born by way of our own mysterious processes.  And yet when we attempt to intentionally enter into mystery, we often don’t know where to begin, nor do we even understand the mystery.

When I am without a formal assignment or prompt, it’s like attempting to trespass on something where there is no territory to trespass.  I’ll stare out the window at the evergreen tree in our backyard and hope that the first line will somehow be infiltrated into my consciousness simply by sitting still.  This is a peculiar device which is contingent upon the premise of “waiting for something to happen.”  I’ll watch the sun spread itself on the snow, and then slip again into the shadows.  Once in awhile, our neighbor will wander through the backyard with her dog.  Yesterday, I heard two rifle shots.  And then sometimes there are divine moments when a flock of geese will fly over the river and honk out a cacophonous sound.

But sometimes, nothing happens.  I bite at my cuticles and wallow about being blocked for the rest of my life.  So here’s a trick: I’ll pick up somebody’s book of poems and read something they’ve written.  I’ll find two compelling words, or perhaps just one.  And then I’ll begin the poem with those one or two words and see if it inspires me.  After all, words implicate ideas, and if you begin sorting through all the words that pass through your mind, you’re bound to eventually come up with a phrase.  Once you have a phrase, the trick is in contextualizing it into story, concept and form.  But the other trick is, it’s probably not a good idea to write poems deliberately.  Some of the best lines and images are often not deliberate.  We arrive at them completely by accident, and that it what makes them resonant, entertaining, and unique.

Even mechanisms like enjambment and rhyme are better when they aren’t deliberate.  Once I wrote a poem all in slant rhyme and wasn’t even conscious that I was doing it.  The fantastic thing about having a husband who is both a poet and a critic is that after he reads a poem that I wrote, he exposes it as conceptually complex, as if I had determined the concept before I began to write it.  He has an uncanny knack for seeing the poet’s intentions even as the poet is unaware of them.  He sees the consciousness of the poem. I am never conscious of the poem’s concept until someone has the insight to see it as a whole and complete entity, operating in terms of oppositions, disparities, and reconciliations.  This is why I think it is the poet’s advantage not to outline or premeditate a concept before the poem actually conceptualizes itself.

So what is my assignment this morning? Oh, right “Frost at Midnight.”  So the first line (which is one of my favorites in the annals of all poetry) “The frost performs its secret ministry,/Unhelped by any wind” is Coleridge’s very perspicacious manner of identifying something in nature and personifying it so that it retains its ethereality. The irony is that the very idea of something “performing” almost implies that there would be something auditory involved—something perhaps loud and showy, and yet the frost performs in silence.  In fact, as the whole poem is somewhat of a performance of nature, all of this is performed without sound, except in two places.  First, “the film that fluttered on the grate,” (“the sole unquiet thing”).  What Coleridge achieves by emphasizing the only thing in this performance which makes any sound is the reinforcing of just how quiet everything else is.  The second place in the poem which references noise is only in the memory of the church tower, “Whose bells [are] the poor man’s only music.”  What this does is juxtapose the quiet of the present with the memory of a great influx of music, thus also reinforcing the calm and soundless moments of the poem.  The last line of the poem, “Quietly shining to the quiet moon” allows us to actually “hear” the quiet moon shining, along with contrast of the fading echo of those church bells and the almost indecipherable fluttering of film on the grate.

So, was Coleridge thinking consciously that he would juxtapose quiet with sound in order to reinforce these mysterious performances of nature?  I doubt it.  A poet never writes a poem with the intention of predetermining how any given reader will interpret it.  A poet should never say, “this is how my poem should be interpreted.”  The poem is simply an extension of the poet’s arbitrariness, and often, if the poem is good, it doesn’t even make sense to the poet.  After that, it is up for grabs and out of the poet’s hands.  No one will ever know what the poet was thinking.  But, they can conjecture and twist it into the meaning which suits the poem as a whole, whether by imposition or simply innocuous speculation.

The way I would harness this poem as inspiration for my own poem would not be to say, “I think I’ll write a poem about the way nature performs,” or “I want to juxtapose quietness and sound.”

I would take the word “ministry” and the idea of the slumbering infant, ascribe it to a present situation and begin like this:

For the time being, we will exist in separate rooms
lest we should be inattentive to the literature.
The hidden ministries of our holy languages
spin their separate webs–
allow our imaginary child to sleep without babble or fuss–
allow the morning to call itself into its order.

There is no trumpeting or wail–
no storm or fallen branch–
no love that desires itself more
than the awareness
that I can hear you drop a coin by accident
in the other room.

So for now, I think I have more or less completed a part of my husband’s assignment, and that assignment has provided me with a sense of orientation. And it was exactly that orientation I needed in order to disorient myself.  And yet, by way of that disorientation, I still managed to address the Coleridge poem.

Since I began writing this, not a thing has occurred in the backyard, except that the sun slipped into a winter shadow.  But I did hear my husband’s coin drop.  I don’t know what that really means in the context of the poem, and yet I have a vague idea that it means I can be assured with the certainty that he is there.  I didn’t say that explicitly in the poem because I was hoping that this might be implied.  But the poem is out of my hands now.  It spoke for an occasion, and the occasion has been documented.  So now I must wait for the next occasion.  After I make my husband breakfast.  :-)

The distinction between what it is that constitutes the “amateur” poet and what constitutes the “expert” is slippery, yet should be considered in an extensive discussion.  To begin, let me address the amateur’s typical testimonies:  “I write to express my emotions,” or “No, I would never show my poetry to anyone!”  The truth is that all poets want readers.  One of the differences between the amateur and the expert is that the amateur feels he is at the risk of exposing something “personal” about himself, and is hesitant because he feels he will either be made to feel vulnerable or will be relegated to the subject of ridicule, while the expert, on the other hand, disguises and crafts his poetry through a language and imagistic lens which allows him to remain distanced from the poem, and what the poem speaks to.  If a novice poet wants to be recognized, it is usually not about inventiveness of metaphor or image, but because he wants not feel so alone, because he wants someone to know his pain, and because perhaps, he is masking as someone who resists conformity or is practicing all the semiotics of how he assumes a poet should present himself to the world.

Let me elaborate.  When I was a high school student in the tenth grade, I ate my lunch alone in one of the cubicles in the library, wore “goth” clothing, and pierced my own ears with a sterilized safety pin. The trouble with wearing your pain in a semiotic costume is that the person wants to be noticed, and often times saved.  Eventually a teacher noticed me and told me that I ought to be writing poetry.  So I wrote horrendous poems and prayed to God that someone cared about my inner turmoil.  I’ve seen this plenty of times with high school students, and even freshman college writers.  Why do poets insist that they are required to write about their own pain?  Maybe it is because pain is more intriguing than writing about a Christmas that goes along merrily and just as planned, or because since the punk rock era, pain is “fashionable.”

The expert poet might be in pain, but somehow has learned not to indulge in it.  He has taken poetry workshops and knows that he must mask this pain behind an exterior that appears normalized, and not sit around the workshop table sulking.  He has learned not have a nervous breakdown when someone attacks his poem, because it is neither “professional” nor socially appropriate. He knows how to assume an air of aloofness or arrogance where it is necessary.  He knows how to cajole publishers and editors with a subtle charisma.  In some respects, he has lost his innocent and bleeding heart to “the business.”

Here is where the amateur exhibits more authenticity.  He has not surrendered himself to competition or the battlefield of what he wants to seem like effortless metaphor and allusion.  The amateur simply wants to be recognized as human, with something to say, and not necessarily for any other audience other than that mentor (and we have all had those) who will assume the role of therapist, or savior, or suicide prevention official.  The problem with this is that the poetry gets lost in the need to feel important.

So the expert is made to feel important by extensive publications, and laudation, not necessarily for the poet himself as person, but for his brilliant rhetorical tactics.  The amateur poet might write about the “hissing wind” as opposed to “anorexic women floating away in the wind,” and this might be so important to him that his heart breaks.  So does the almost ersatz recognition of twenty editors make the expert feel better for his gratified ego, or does this just leave him feeling empty, in that unrequited manner he can’t expose behind his flashing smile?  Does he want to be loved for his humanity or for the name on the page?

The truth is, no one can take a name on a page out for a romantic dinner.  A poet CAN be taught to twist his pain into clever metaphor and image, but at the same time, must have healthy relationship to his sanity.

The advantage of being married to another poet who recognizes me for my humanness and also (the horror) loves me more than he loves my poetry is that I know I can break down in a hysterical fit of tears over nothing, while at the same time he can say, “edit the lineation in the poem.”  I am by far an expert, though I have been fortunate to attract the literary eye of many editors.  Suffice it to say that the recognition of my work can never be a substitute for the love that my husband gives to me.  It is certainly fantastic to have your work recognized, but if you don’t have someone to make you less alone, and someone who recognizes your pain as something he wants to save you from, than the idea of real human interaction is obliterated.

My advice to both amateurs and experts: care for yourself first.  If the roof caves in and you walk outside your front door some morning to find a dead raccoon, write about it.  If you go to a carnival and the balloons look lonely, investigate why.  Tell your loved one about the lonely balloons in your sleep, and then sigh when he kisses you and makes the balloons seem less lonely.  Tell him that the instrumental version of “C’mon it’s Lovely Weather for a Sleigh Ride Together with You” upsets you because of the sound of the whip against the reindeer’s posterior.  But never lose your wanderlust, and be naïve about the world.  Do not indulge in the pain of having no one show up for your fortieth birthday celebration in literal terms.  Personify the wall or the tea kettle.  See yourself as a medium, and speak through objects and images which might implicitly reveal your pain, but not render it the primary focus of the poem.  Speak through “things.”  Speak through “event,” as a bystander and unassuming observer.  Be the corner of the room where the dust gathers.  And never underestimate the amateur poet.  Cater to his insanity.  As an editor, in the words of my husband, “see what the poem wants to say or do.”  Regard the poem as an extension of someone whose voice must be crafted in order to be heard.  Poetry, as necessity, should never neglect the person behind the poem.

In the interest of clarity, we will be using terms I’ve either borrowed or made up as a sort of “jargon” by which to navigate this series of essays. The first of these are the ten forms of “value.’ These are values by which cannons and books enter the world of letters. I name them:

1. Received/institutionalized value
2. True value
3. Illicit value
4. Integrated value
5. Inclusive value
6. Immediate value
7. Historical value
8. Market value
9. Normative value
10. Disruptive value
11. This is the extra value which we will call the court jester of values: dubious value.

A brief explanation of each of these:

Received value consists of works which no one questions the value of: Hamlet, Moby-Dick, etc. Many of these works exist as givens in the culture, and, when they are challenged, it is often done for flourish, to seem daring, or to make from that challenge a power move towards inclusion of a new aesthetic that is, at that moment, considered outside the established order. One is expected by critics, scholars, and authorities to have read, or to, at least, know the names of these works. Many become foundational texts, and one is compelled to read them as early as high school. They are received in so far as they are seldom questioned. They are institutionalized in so far as they are made required reading. They are generative in so far as they are the very works by which, from which, and around which the cultural apparatus is set into motion. They exist as the given structure.

True value is what the auditor simply desires or enjoys, irrespective of imposed or received value. Of course received value may shape his or her tastes towards true value (that is called education) but the auditor genuinely desires both to read these texts and gets pleasure from such reading. An interesting list of must read books made it to face book recently. It was the most hybrid list of these ten values I have yet seen and included the Da Vinci Code among its cannon. We are witnessing not a loss of the cannon, but what I will call a hybrid cannon between books that are considered master pieces and books that are considered part of the cultural meme. Americans do not like neat distinctions and it was not explained why a popular best seller would be a “must read” along with Tolstoy. It would be interesting to study this list for evidence in a shift or blurring of lines in our value systems.

Illicit value: The auditor knows that what he or she is reading has no true value. It is trash, a guilty pleasure, a work which, if exposed to the light of day, would lesson them in the eyes of their friends and peers. With the advent of the campy, a person may indulge in such reading as long as he or she lets you know that he or she knows this is “bad” work. It may even become a semiotic indicator of a sort of cool to indulge in such work. It is like a hipster who suddenly revels in owning ten Wayne Newton Albums. This is a game of irony, and is often played up as being no irony at all—but, rather, a hyper literal sense of embracing garbage in order to show oneself  to be as free of any outside law and as arbitrary—as a god. It is hard to parse this illicit value out from true value. If one willfully indulges in nothing but Wayne Newton albums, one is either Andy Warhol, or an old lady at bingo. And given our society, there is a distinct possibility that every old lady at bingo, heightened by a situational slant of light is, indeed, Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol went to mass daily.

Integrated value: When one is aware of the mechanisms of one’s received values, or as fully aware as possible, is aware, and has refined one’s tastes to the point where an aesthetic argument, a reasonable one, can be made for exceptions, for a certain latitude within and without received and true values, then one may be said to have achieved “integrated value.” This is the position of the discerning critic. Intuition, bred from years of training or study, allows this auditor to make “informed” appraisals, and, more to the point, to step out of his aesthetic limitations to acknowledge work which, not being to his taste, he or she can still call well done. This rare and benevolent beast exists far more as an ideal than as a reality, but it is on this “nose” for exceptions that many careers are made, and by which, many “lost” works are reinstated. This is the aesthete as “hero.” He raises John Clare from the dead. He sees the talent in the raw. He may not be a king maker, but he knows how to whisper in the ears of king-makers. He is steady, and intelligent, and moves through the world with just the right balance of unpredictability and gravitas.

Inclusive value: When we cannot kill, dismiss, or withstand an effective assault of outsiders on the cannon, then, first, the most presentable of the outsiders, then a charismatic maverick or two, and, finally, a general flood are acknowledged as having value. Their presence is considered a token of equity—of power sharing. In some respects, they remain in ghettos defined by gender, race, sexuality, or class. Some of these authors wish to be seen only as poets or novelists, sans their classification. This is the meaning of “post” race, post gender, and so on and so forth. Ina dislogistic sense, it can be viewed as “We have come along enough to be snobs just like the ones who kept us out.” In a neutral sense, it means: “We are now equal or, at least, in the ball park of equal and can be seen for our distinctions rather than for our representation. In the laudatory sense it means, some grand goal of life style leftism has been achieved, and the categories are outmoded. Others embrace being role models, representatives of the formerly excluded. Still others have “representation” thrust upon them. They represent whether they will or not. These ghettos provide a power base, but are also a limitation. This evolves over time until those who seem most out of type, most independent of either the prototype of the literary establishment, or the prototype of the exception, are, themselves, charged with the sin of impiety against the categorical. On the one hand, they do not fit the establishment. On the other, they do not fit the semiotics of the established “anti-establishment.” This is a problem with the categorical we will address as the course continues. Suffice it to say, inclusive “value” is grudgingly acknowledged by all but the most powerful, though, in the safety of private thought, a “black writer,” or a Chicano writer, or a trans-gender, black/Chicano writer might still never be allowed to live without his or her qualifiers. The true  and integrative value with which a good reader approaches their work is the most a credible solution, but it is seldom allowed to go unchallenged. In the last fifty years identity, and multi-cultural attacks on the cannon have caused many an aesthete to become positively noble in their lament for standards (whatever those are). Some of these aesthetes belong to the very groups that were formerly excluded.

Immediate value is the buzz, the names on every graduate student’s lips: Mathew or Michael Dickman! La, la, la… Zapruder! Ala, ala… Alex Lemon! Such writers are well on their way to being crowned. Too much buzz, and they might be in for a fall. A steady buzz and they become a brand name. These are open sesame names that make a literary person look up to the minute. They are easy to drop as “names” that are not yet known by the masses. It keeps the outsiders defined and creates the allusion of knowing—a very powerful allusion.

Historical value: Writers raised from the dead because some group who feels outside the power structure wants in, or because they are needed to surround the crown jewels of a literary movement or time.

Market value: These are writers who have spent most of their lives derided for being pop novelists, but are then, through persistent buzz and sheer time, and their own longing to be taken seriously, taken seriously: Stephen King, and, oddly, the writer of the Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown) are cases in point. Somehow the Da Vinci Code ended up on a list of must read books that also includes acknowledged greats. This can only be explained by a confusion of values, and merge point where popularity, and the duration of popularity shares in some of the indicators of literary greatness. Sometimes it takes the French to crown pulp (The film noir craze that made serious writers out of detective novelists). There has been a general schism between what is wildly popular and what is “high art” since Dickens. Market value, once translated into literary value makes for a “classic.” There are writers considered serious who hit the jackpot (John Irving). But here, I am speaking of writers considered pulp who become “serious” because some critic, or a group of influential critics, mistakes their illicit value for true value. Their books may be filled with cliché, shoddy sentences, stock characters, but some “idea” takes hold of our collective imagination (or lack thereof) and makes them “serious.” This usually happens when actual sales start declining.

Normative value: these are your grant winning, smaller award winning serious poets and novelists. They define the norm of what is considered “good.” They do not reach the heights. They never sink too low. The creds and the respect in which they are held leads to tenure, and a small following of ideal and intelligent readers. They round out most parties, and most often throw them.

Disruptive value: An obscenity trial, an early death, a controversial topic, some strain of madness that intersects with the cultural meme, an energy that is as much extra-literary as literary creates a stir, and this stir leads to the writer having a semiotic significance.

Total obscurity during one’s actual life is another draw here: Whitman, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Joyce, Lawrence, and Ginsberg rose to fame on the broken wings of scandal. John Clare, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins rode on the wings of their former obscurity.  This includes poets and novelists championed because they have been thrown into prison. All this is extra-literary, but so what? If we think only the literature counts when it comes to gate keepers of greatness, then we ought to buy a moon pie, and sit with our gal Lucy under the Brooklyn bridge and say: “gee, Lucy, some day, I’m going to buy this bridge for you.”

Dubious value: all ten of the above.

None of these values exist in isolated, pure form, and all of them bleed into the other, causing a hopeless mess I am attempting, through these ten kinds of value, to note—not define. I note these ten, and there may be more, but these ten are useful to our purpose for when we start looking at the structures operating behind gate keepers.

It must be remembered that none of these values exist in their pure form, and that a constant ongoing “rhetoric” exists between them, a call and response in which the rhetoric itself—the interactions and movements of the bodies, their “trace” is all that is truly visible (much as we know certain particles by their movements, by their trail, we know our values very often when they are embodied by a deed, or challenged by a deed). I will define rhetoric as follows:

Any symbolic act made to bridge or understand the gap between self and other or to widen that gap—to either find common ground or to claim for the ground the same impassable space as exists between “friend” and “foe.” Rhetoric occurs when ever two entities, or an entity speaking to itslef and therefore divided, wish to size up, define, mitigate, affirm, or “reform” or dismantle values which they may share in part, in whole, or by which they are in opposition. Rhetoric, in addition to persuading, also attacks, courts, seduces, and defines the context by which certain events will be perceived and, often, by which they may occur. And here’s another interesting idea: experiments at stanford have shown that languages create thought grooves which, when deep enough, may lead to the sort of trained incapacity Veblen spoke of. English for example ascribes an agen to any act regardless of intention or motive, and is very good at creating a memory for details all around the act, but it tends to be less concerned with motive or intention, and will leave these out of the sentence, if it leaves anything out. Agent and act will always remain, but intention and motive might disappear. this is not true in Spanish.  The test that was given showed that, in Spanish, unless a glass was broken intentionally, the glass broke itself. The act was remembered, but the agent of the act was not considered important  enough to remember unless the person intentionally and willfully broke the glass. It seems Spanish speakers did not remember such details because intention in the Spanish language often determines whether a perpetrator is needed.  Otherwise “The glass broke itself” No mention of a breaker. In English, the language caused people to remember both the one who intentionally broke the glass and the one who unintentionally broke the glass, as “he broke the glass.” What the Spanish language speakers tended to leave out were the agents. What the English language speakers tended to leave out were the motives and intentions of the act. The different languages had taught the people in the experiment to concentrate on and remember different things. This means their cognition, their “thoughts” were differently grooved by the languages they spoke. A time orient, agent/act oriented langauge will create a far different rhetoric. It might be capable of far greater recall of the scene/act, but be far poorer at considering intention. A language in which time is not linear (and there are many) might create a person who sees the world very differently. Time and space, and even the way we view what is politically correct are all much more contingent on our training in rhetoric, and the grooving of one’s brain in certain languages, than on a specifically hard wired mechanism of thought that is “universal” and capable of surmounting the grooves of our trained capacity and incapacity. When a child says in Enlgish to his mommy: “the glass broke mommy,” the mother might reply: “Well, it didn’t just break by itself (enforcing the bias in English for agent/act) What did you do? Did you break the glass?” The child learns “I broke the glass”. or “Jimmy broke the glass.” The child does not learn as strongly that, without a deliberate will to break the glass, it just “broke” IN situations where they wish to defend someone they like, they might say: “by accident.” Not always. This goes a long way in explaining some of our current reliance on intention and motive free neutral speech– speech robbed of any nuance save for the process of who did what and where. This is considered full proof in English. We do not always take the intention into consideration, especially if it is good for our agenda to forget the motivational reason behind an act or statement. Certain “Waht’s” are censored without consdieration to their intent: for example, Mark Twain has his characters use the N word, and bigots use the N word. All that the politically correct focus on his the word– the act, not its intention or context. Reuslt: blanket censorship. This may just be because English, and especially American English tends to ignore motive and intent and focus on act and IN Spanish the act would be remembered, but not necessarily the agent. The glass broke. No one broke it. It broke. This is interesting when we apply it to a situation where someone sees the N word in Huckleberry Finn, and does not make a nuanced distinction between the intention of its use in Huck Finn and its use by a racist boss. Of course many try to make this distinction, but the tendency of English to emphasize Agent/act, and the tendency of Amercan English to simplify everything beyond motive, causes us to censor Huckelberry Finn as “inappropriate.” Someone broke a glass, and that is bad. Someone used the N word and that is bad. Context, motive, and intention are not as important as agent/act. This effects our political rhetoric, and we tend to islate verbal acts outside of context and intention in order to destroy our enemies. Why they did it is beside the point. Very scary when you think about it.

So rhetoric is the verbal mechanism of ritual, consensus, strife, uneasy truces, alliances, and at the core of all value systems, aesthetics, and orders of priority and procedure. One could say that each “surrealist” poem is a rhetorical subset of appeal to surrealism itself. Surrealism may be the title, and the poem may be what proceeds from that title, but both poem and title maintain an ongoing rhetoric with each other and with the audience, thus helping to both define and reconfigure the orientation of each. It is through different modes of appeal that surrealism itself evolves or fails to evolve. Whenever a rhetoric is in place for a profession, an aesthetic, or belief system, or a literary movement, two outcomes are inevitable: the presence of piety (an appeal to the sources of one’s being, in the forms of a jargon, an attitude,and a procedure or praxis that is considered proper) and an initiation towards the pure. We will explore piety as a secular and religious force which, in the strongest moments of enforcement may supersede the effectiveness of its own rhetoric, and even endanger the very values for which the rhetoric is first instituted (for example, when evolutionary biologists try to defend evolution by using the very language that infuriates the opposition, and offends people’s sensibilities).

A maxim: The more stable the rhetoric, the more hypertrophic its piety and its sense of initiation. At a critical level of stability, this hypertrophy of piety creates a bureaucratic state of utterance in which the means justify the means, the system perpetuates itself as pure rhetoric. It is unaware of itself as a rhetoric and believes it is existence itself. So: the lawyer who becomes the perfect embodiment of lawyer may be unable to accept any new developments in his field except as “impieties,” threats, forms of secular blasphemy. They are not the rhetoric of being a lawyer as he knows it, and he might react emotionally to this change. His level of piety sees such change as an affront even when it is pointed out to him that the change is necessary. A literary establishment might be so immured in the process of being a literary establishment that it might see “new” developments only when they fit preconceived notions of the new and proceed in ways the establishment considers non-threatening to its rhetoric. Anything truly new will be subject to resistance. The old orientation will not be able to assimilate it, and will therefore either reject, ignore, or attack it as symptomatic of a “decline” in standards.What speaks outside the grooves of our current language often creates the same hostility as a foreign language. If attacking this new discourse or rhetoric does not work, the old will take on some of the aspects of the new. This is what I call rhetorical mate selection. It is not the ideas of the new, but their rigor and jargon which people so often fear and protest against. How people “See” things is hopelessly related to how they express them. The first cars looked just like horseless carriages. How movement was expressed aestheticly took longer to change than how it was expressed in terms of horse verses horse power. The new will enter, but compromised by the old. A sort of merge point will be affected thus changing the orientation of old to new, and new to old. Another possibility, when a system has achieved extreme bureaucratic purity is that nothing can even be perceived as existing outside that system. All rhetorical, symbolic, and methodological force will be put to the purpose of subsuming this foreign matter into the old understanding of the system. This is what Veblen hinted at in his idea of “trained incapacity.” It is what John Dewey warned of in his concept of “Occupational psychosis.”

Now a parable borrowed from Burke’s expansion on John Dewey’s occupational psychosis and Veblen’s trained incapacity in his great book Permanence and Change:

Chicken are trained to answer a bell in order to eat. They are conditioned to this bell. Bell equals food. Food equals bell.

One day, a chicken answers the bell and is killed. This goes on for quite some time. The chicken’s training, which was perfect, and perfectly obeyed, now leads to his slaughter. Chickens are doing whatever chickens have been trained to do and have always done, and the results are disastrous. The chicken’s training is a groove, a  cognitive rut that prevents him from avoiding disaster under new circumstances. At this point, only those chickens born outside the groove or unconditioned can arrive at the conclusion: bell equals death.

Some chickens, a very few, cease to respond to the bell. If this were a human system, with rhetoric and eastehtics involved, a rhteoric and aesthetics based on a system that is no longer working, that is producing  results opposite to the wished for outcomes, then it might play out this way (Understand that I am complicating chickens here and simplifying human motivations to find a useful merge point):

Something is wrong with the way we answer the bell. That must be it.  Neither the bell nor the system can be wrong—the protocol or ritual is wrong. What happens? Surface reform!

The system is purified. Not only do the chickens answer the bell with greater vehemence (the swelling of systems under threat), but they do so with renewed spirit and built a whole poetics around the truth of the bell. New rituals of bell response are invented, or the old rituals are reinstated in their supposed original purity. The chickens are purifying their system, purging it of corruption (sound familiar?).

Meanwhile, the chickens who willfully refuse to answer the bell are seen as impious, as negative, as renegades, ad rejects. The necessary sacrifice of a demonized opposition is enacted: The rebels are put in chicken prison or pecked to death. Then, still with no food, it is decided that food is not the end all be all of the system. No!Answering the bell must not be for such selfish reasons! Better to implement the system on a “pure” level for system’s sake beyond any reward, for “virtue” is its own reward! It is beautiful  to die for the holiness of answering the bell, because it is right, and chickens must be willing to die for the principle of the bell.  Of course, while agreeing to this in principle, very few chickens take this to its proposed extreme, but those whose power is wrapped up in the old system either do so, or they find a perfect victim (the necessary sacrifice of the perfect and divine victim)—a chicken who can answer the bell perfectly, without fear, with perfect grace, exemplifying all the best that a chicken stands for. He dies! The rest hang back. They have no food. First, they eat the chickens who refused to answer the bell. After all, they are impious. They may even be the cause of why the bell no longer equals food, but, rather, death. Then they “purify” answering the bell rather than answering it in a truly concrete sense. It is an “ideal,” not a reality.

They find a way to still obey the “spirit” of the bell rather than just failing to respond to it. They are now doing what the rebellious chickens did except for all the “right reasons.” Intention here is everything. When agent and act no longer add up, they fall upon intention, but their rhetorical system does not handle intention well, so that there must always be a moral reason why things turned to shit: it is primitive and simplistic, but, in a culture where the rhetoric allows only for obedience to the bell, it has great effectiveness. In this sense the chickens have all become Kantian moralists: true morality is not compliance, but the motivational piety of virtue. A merge point has been made between the chickens who answered the bell and those that refused. The terms of refusal have been converted into the rhetoric of “pure” or “virtual compliance.

Now the chickens no longer answer the bell, but they have built a whole value system around answering the bell, “in spirit.” The impiety of the non-compliant chickens has been subsumed into the new orientation of the older value system. In the old days, their ancestors were legalistic and forgot the spirit of the bell. That’s why they died (yes, that’s it). The ones who refused to answer the bell were right to a point, but they did not conform to the system and needed to be sacrificed. They did not have the right spirit of “pure response.”They were disrespectful in their revolt. The “new” chicken lives by the spirit of the bell. He finds ways to expiate the sin of not answering to it by seeing himself as “answering to it” in spirit. Meanwhile, chickens who are part of the power establishment of the spirit, start eating other chickens. This is rationalized as a necessary and ongoing sacrifice to the spirit of the bell (it is nice that it also allows them a new food source). Cannibalism is rationalized through symbol systems and ritual. The bell means death, but spiritualized, it means heaven (heaven, as the end to history, and the beginning of eternity is a laudatory term for death) The chickens eat each other.  They are now conditioned not to answer the bell. If lucky, some impending victims might transcend conditioning and answer it in order to escape the certain death that awaits them. They would rather die answering the bell than by remaining to be eaten. They answer the bell and are fed instead of slaughtered. If the system triumphs enough, perhaps it survives by breeding some chickens for life and others for food. A few chickens might, out of desperation, answer to the bell and find the food again, but, by this time, they will be looked upon as outcasts. Actually answering the bell is now considered a sin! And so it goes, and goes and goes. One person’s piety is another’s impiety, and piety mingled with purity means holy war. We must be careful of the following words. They are always indicative of a system that is perceived as no longer functioning or that has gained such a level of function that it has created an unwanted sense of inertia. The words are: purity, solution, problem. Reform is another favorite.Wherever you see them you will hear the following arguments:

- The system must be fully implemented. What is wrong with the system is it has become too lax.
- The system has declined and must be restored to its true efficiency by some act of purgation (firing, lay-offs, resignations, rituals)
- The system is not wrong, its leaders are corrupt. Get new ones!
- The System must be overhauled, in point of fact, destroyed. (revolution)
- There never was a system and we were deluding ourselves. (nihilism, a distortion of scientific null positions).

Each one these suppositions has its own rhetoric, a rhetoric that seeks perfection and creates both trained capacities (the ability to negotiate and think inside that rhetoric) and trained incapacity (the inability to see anything except in terms of one’s own limited rhetoric).

In any successful evolution from one trained incapacity or capacity to another, there is a rhetorical and aesthetic merge point: the system stoops to its opposition and the opposition takes on enough coloration of the system it opposes to mate with it. I call this systemic mate selection. I had a student write a good paper on the “Starbucksing” of Dunkin Donuts, and the Dunking Donutsing of Starbucks. Starbucks has become less and less hang friendly, more like a factory for premium coffee. Gone are the poets and musicians. Dunkin donuts has become more “stylish”– offering poor man’s versions of specialty coffees and various up scale landscaping while keeping their garish colors as a semiotic badge of pride against the trademark “green” of the “eco-friendly” new age competitor. Starbucks does not seem to hire old or especially odd looking people, and that’s a nice rhetorical irony given their sustainability, new age aesthetics. This betrays their major target market: Americans who would never step foot in a dunkin donuts or a walmart, and are life style conservatives or leftists.  Both coffee empires play up their images as distinct while merging their actions.IN the same way slam poets and spoken word artists become academics. At the college grand slams, speakers boasted of their academic positions. Slam becomes more and more about a formula hardened by def jam, and related to no greater freedom or innovation than academic poetry.Academics start dressing down, give up their suits for the leisure wear that has status and “looks ” professional (but would have gotten them fired only forty years ago)Most of the time, the opposition is no true opposition but merely an aporia within the system itself (the slam artist comes from the same university background as the academic. It is largely in house, and both want the same thing: for their systems to be in power and for their group to decide who is in and out of the gates). Most human change is neither revolutionary nor evolutionary; it is based on the farce of trained capacity and incapacity. Of course this farce leads up to slaughtering the innocent, deifying the guilty, killing the prophets, and reducing genocide to theory. It also determines which schools of poetry get a share of controlling the prizes and the NEA.It allows for a professionalism in creative writing totally at odds with the Rimbaud, Ginsberg, Joyce, or Plath the professionals champion as great. They tame these creatures and do their best to pretend the life and the art are separate, and one can keep the art and forget the life because nothing makes a poet more acceptable than death.Baraka reads a just ok poem/rant at the 2002 Dodge festival in which he asks the question where were the Israelis when the twin towers went down, and he is stating a typical position of global leftism since the late forties (that Zionism and Jews are not one and the same) and he is vilified, condemned, and the politicians who put him in a position as representative pretend to be shocked as well as appalled. The secret message of such positions are: “you’re famous, Mr. Baraka, and we want to use your glitter to show how forward thinking we are, and how much we love the arts (they probably never read his poetry deeply) now please shut up and don’t say anything controversial.” Why? Because in his position as representative of New Jersey poetry, he is supposed to be uncontroversial or “controversial” in all the acceptable ways, and to say things in the most compromised form possible. Rants are not liked by people who worship Mary Oliver, and I was there and I saw them hating Baraka before he even mentioned the thing that got him “in trouble.” He represented a a maverick in the process of inclusive value. Rita Dove or Lucille Clifton would have been adored, and if they said the same line in a poem, no one would have noticed.  After all they were all so “post color and class,” and Baraka still insists that color, and, even more so class, cheapen and corrupt American discourse. Of course, just 8 years later, he is brought back in glory when the Dodge festival is held in Newark. It’s all high comedy, and any person who would be pure, and above this farce will be killed, slaughtered, ignored, or seen as an idiot (until the chickens in power realize they need his vicarious glamor and claim him as a hero in retrospect). We call rich people who are crazy eccentrics. We call poets who the status quo has decided to recognize “controversial.” By the time someone is called controversial, he or she is often already part of the establishment– that part that listed under acceptable renegades.

Read any argument in the literary world and you will find these ten forms of value, these five attitudes towards a troubled system, and the chicken parable represented. We are going to study the mechanisms of these arguments—their “value” their rhetoric, their piety and rituals of initiation, and expiation and, most importantly, their application to the manufacturing of power in the literary world triumphant, the literary world militant, and the literary world pending. I forgot to mention the most pernicious of values and the true way favors are bestowed: “Studied with.” If you scratch under the service of any grant winning list, you will find four in ten who are totally without connection to the judges. This connection has, at best, two degrees of separation as opposed to the usual six. Why should  we be shocked or appalled? After all, diners in New jersey are almost all owned by Greeks. Why should the literary establishment not be owned by birds of a feather and why should it not consolidate its power among known gate keepers? The problem arises when literary establishments claim it is greatness or quality that determines most awards and posterity. To an extent this is true. Don’t you think your friends are wonderful? We should not be upset by this state of affairs. It is not corrupt. What is corrupt is pretending it does not exist to the extent it does. LEtters of recommendation are only different in kind not purpose from the old hand written letters that allowed a young gentlemen access to the leading circles of society. Poets that rise from “obscurity” have some fully connected patrons: Emily Dickinson: daughter of a congressman, (family had Emerson as a house guest), and Emily had the chief editor of the Atlantic Monthly as a pen pal. John Clare was originally championed by Lords who thought themselves enlightened during a vogue for peasant poets. We could go on. Sans connections or the help of a patron, writers have one alternative: make their own alliances, throw their own party, and hope someone notices.

Before I left for India, my doctor tried to talk me into a a $1500 rabies vaccine by convincing me that packs of stray dogs would be pouncing on my every step and probably even attack me in my sleep. He practically insisted I buy a Hazmat suit to ward off mosquitoes. My mother, on the other hand, just said, “Gosh honey, that’s far.” My friend, who had actually visited India, warned me to watch out for motorbike guys who would feel me up on the street.

We all have our ways of dealing with the unknown, I guess. Apparently cartographers used to write “Here be dragons” on sections of uncharted territory, especially oceans, where they drew pictures of giant sea serpents. One ancient Roman map cautioned travelers about the presence of dog-headed beings. Another 15th-century map warns of men with horns.

I know my mom, doctor, and friend were all looking out for me—and they were right about some of that shit—but the real warning I wish I’d gotten is this: Don’t take any of the warnings too seriously. Sure, India’s far away, the number of stray dogs is vaguely alarming, and guys on motorbikes will (and have already) tried to cop a feel. Everyone knows that snakes are dangerous—but the real danger of constantly watching the ground for cobras is that you miss out on the beauty of the landscape around you.

Luckily, the Indian friends I’ve met here quickly relieved me of all my Western paranoia, largely by mocking me and all the protective gear I brought along. Wear bug spray, they said, but only at dawn and dusk. Check your bed for scorpions, but don’t stress about it. Accept that your feet will be dirty a lot of the time.

These exchanges were my first brush with what I’ve come to appreciate as one of the loveliest things about India: flow. The sense of going with things rather than against them, of finding their underlying movement and joining it rather than frantically trying to control every detail. People don’t really stand in line at shops here, they just sort of eventually maneuver their way past other people to the front. Traffic (magically?) works this way too—no one stays in a lane, cars just twist and turn and honk until the other people/cars/cows/dogs get out of the way. True, this strategy requires a lot of looking out for yourself, but it’s effective. As Westerners all we see is horrible chaos and inefficiency, but somehow, India—an ancient nation with an extremely diverse population of over a billion—works.

The other day my Danish friend Louise and I went to Bangalore to do some exploring. We could have taken a cab back to the village, but decided to try the bus, which was much cheaper and took about the same amount of time. Naturally, we were totally unprepared for the chaos—“the bus station” was a slew of 50 or so buses in no discernible line or arrangement that all left at the same time. The “system” is that passengers wade through the sea of vehicles, hope they find the one with the right number on it, and get on before it leaves (or, jump on as it drives away). After asking about 15 drivers where our bus was and getting about 15 noncommittal Indian head nods, we eventually packed ourselves in the right sardine tin.

Even riding on the bus, a relatively passive activity, is an exercise in flow and communal effort. People cram in until no one can move, and if you’re lucky enough to have a seat, you will bear the (literal) burden of whatever the people standing up don’t have room to carry. For about an hour of the ride I held some random lady’s laptop, while the old woman next to me held a baby—the baby of a total stranger. The tacit understanding seems to be hey, we’re all in this madness together, so let’s at least help each other out.

This afternoon my friend Mireille (who’s French, and a longtime expatriate) was describing her early experiences in India to me—how hard it was at first to feel clueless about all the cultural cues, especially with regard to relationships. “It would take a year of friendship with someone in France to have the kind of conversation you have with someone you just met in India—someone you will never see again,” she said. “It’s much more acknowledging of real life. We don’t know what will happen with our relationships, with our lives. So people just live now.” And when you do have that intense conversation with someone you just met, you don’t need to thank them for the fulfillment or follow up, for changing your day—it’s just “see you, have a nice life.” People move in and out of your life organically, and sometimes quickly.

As confusing and frustrating as I find it at times, I can already feel this sense of flow moving out of the “Observations About Exotic Other” file in my brain and beginning to permeate my consciousness. When a poem I’m writing isn’t working, my typical impulse is to keep trying to force it into existence until I hate writing and hate my life and why are we even here on this planet and OMG 404 SYSTEM ERROR. Lately, though, I’ve found myself just… letting it go. Moving on to something else, maybe having a coffee or a chat, and coming back to it later to see if it’s open for business. “Sitting down to work” has become “relaxing into thought.” Several poem-series I’d started/abandoned before I left have been getting more attention now that I can pull back and give them the slow, intuitive love they deserve. I also find myself more willing to let go of those poem-parts that got things started but now don’t fit anymore—you know, the ones you want to hang on to because hey, you owe them for bringing you a poem.

When I got here I asked about the Indian head nod (How do I do it? What does it mean?) and was told by both locals and foreigners it would only happen naturally, that it couldn’t be forced. Much to my surprise, the other day I did it to a waiter without even noticing. I don’t know that I could explain exactly what I meant—yes, no, maybe, sort of, I don’t know, or a multitude of other things—but he knew what I meant.

One of the most curious aspects about poetry is that the element of “truth” presented in any given poem is never stable.  With this in mind, the truth that the reader must accept at face value is constructed by the poet out of his or her organic impulses, and must be credible simply because the poet pronounces that it is.  A question with which I have been wrestling for years is the idea that the poet and the “speaker” are possessed by two distinct and disconnected identities.  What I find fascinating is that I can read a poem about death, sadness, and strife, and in some cases, the suffering of the speaker, and then meet and converse with the poet who always seems to be a contented and well-adjusted individual.  This might evince the possibility that the speaker is not always espoused to the poet, but is rather something of the poet’s alternative identity.

In certain instances, this is not the case.  The idea that the speaker is the poet condemns the poet to a great deal of inner turmoil. The content of some poems would suggest then that poet as speaker is ailed with madness.  So why, when I go to poetry events do the poets all seem like regular people?  Why aren’t they screaming in the streets about their hallucinations?

As poets, I think we all must surrender to hallucinations.  There are those who will attest that every poet must be possessed by a bit of madness.  When I feel too “sane” I find it difficult to produce a good poem.  But if all poets harness that little bit madness when they write, then what they write must be fully believed as true.  The irony in this is that we don’t know exactly whether the poem then becomes a “lie,” later on when we go to the grocery store and happily shop for hamburger meat without breaking into sobs for the plight of the cows.  We just go through the check-out line with our meat, exchange pleasantries with the cashier, go home and cook dinner.  It seems almost dangerous to retain a bit of that madness when interacting with the percentage of unpoetic minds.

I once read a poem in which the speaker claims that he spent three days in a closet and then solved most of the world’s problems.  So I imagined that this was actually true of the poet.  I wonder if this was true, and if after he emerged from his sabbatical in the closet, he drove his kids to school, cleaned the house, and paid his taxes.  So is it perilous for the poet to become the speaker?  I don’t know.  If a poet writes about standing on a cliff and contemplating whether or not to jump, do we check the poet into the psychiatric unit?  Or do we send an imaginary speaker to the psychiatric unit?

If the poet puts on a mask in order to inhabit the madness and grandiosity of the speaker, then what is it in us that can allow us to go out, eat our dinner politely, and carry on a conversation about recipes and yoga?  Where does the poet go when she writes about being somebody’s shadow and love letters up in flame?  How does she then give a reading in a bookstore where they are serving punch and cookies and not be denounced for her schizo-affective depression?  How does she then shake hands and sign books and smile?  Does she go home and tear off all the wallpaper in a fit of despair and then swallow two bottles of aspirin with a bottle of vodka?  Or does she just write about doing this?

Because honestly, most would say that a poem about tearing off all the wallpaper and swallowing two bottles of aspirin with a bottle of vodka is much more interesting than just saying “I forgot to brush my teeth last night.”  So must the speaker live through the poet?

I don’t know.  But we can make our dental neglect interesting, without endangering our own lives.  If the speaker takes over, then what the speaker claims is true is true, and as readers, we must accept this truth.  Someone once told me that all poets are liars.  If this is the case, then what are they lying about?  Does the poet lie through the speaker or does the poet lie about her sanity while buying hamburger meat?  Obviously, the former is more compelling.

I have arrived at the conclusion that poets, then, must have a handle on their madness in order to work with publishers.  Publishers don’t care about your mental instabilities.  They don’t care if you woke up and had a nervous breakdown because you forgot to brush your teeth last night.  They care about metaphor, allusion, command of language.  They care about what readers would appreciate as quality poetry.  So must we assume this madness in order to write and then tell the psychiatrist that everything is going along swimmingly?  Must we write about spending three days solving the problems of world in a closet, or must we really do so?  How far must we go to procure truth?

This is what I mean when I say that the truth is constructed, and through that, an identity from which we may be disconnected.  We must carry our speakers around like children and care for them.  If our speakers die, or say that they died in the poem, then the poet must go on living, liberated from strife.  She must buy hamburger meat.  She must brush her teeth.  She must tear off all the wallpaper, in her mind. And she must always emerge from the madness of the poem into a sense of normalcy, whatever that normalcy is, if normal at all.

NOTE: This is the first of a series of posts by Colie Hoffman about her experience while a writer-in-residence at Sangam House, India.

It’s only been two weeks since I arrived in India, but already I feel totally at home here. The tiny village where I’m living—beautiful unto itself, with its stone paths and red mud houses—is surrounded by expansive grasslands, palm trees, and wooded dirt roads. I eat delicious, fresh vegetarian meals twice a day, someone takes care of the cooking and laundry, and I get to enjoy the company of six other writers. And while all this is magical, it’s really just a sideshow to the main attraction: For 10 straight weeks, I have all the free time in the world to write, write, write.

This paradise is Sangam House, a relatively new international writers’ residency program (in its third year) based in South India. The first two sessions took place near Pondicherry, on India’s southeast coast, but this year the location switched to a “dance village” called Nrityagram, about 20 (rough-riding!) miles outside Bangalore in the Indian state of Karnataka.

Nrityagram is very small—10 buildings plus a few in progress. We’re five miles from the nearest post office, bar, convenience store, etc. (basically, anywhere you could buy anything). The jogs I take along local roads are punctuated by stray dogs and passing herds of cows or goats. Nrityagram was created as the home of a small ensemble of classical Indian dancers, the handful of students who study with them, the administrative staff who run the place, and most recently, us—the writers at Sangam House. We’re here for only three months, but the dance community (which has been more than welcoming) lives here year-round.

During my stay I’m trying to complete the manuscript for my first book of poems. I had secretly wondered if all the time and freedom from my usual responsibilities would block me, but so far I’ve been reading, writing, and revising up a storm (knock on wood). There is the occasional off day, when the ideas don’t come or nothing I’ve done quite works—but by and large, my days here have been successful, productive, and inspiring.

About half the writers at Sangam House at any one time are from various states in India, and half are from abroad. When I arrived, my fellow residents were from Kolkata, Lucknow (both in northern India), and Copenhagen. Rajat writes in English and Bengali, Pratibha writes in Hindi, and Louise translates from English to Danish (I am the sad soul who speaks and writes only in English). Since then we have been joined by four other writers. Most people are working on fiction projects while here, but in India the identity chasm between fiction and poetry is not so stark—many writers do both and publish both.

So what’s a day like? my family keeps asking. There’s no exact schedule, but regular things (meals, people waking up and sharing coffee and the paper, people going for walks) happen at regular-ish times. Generally we make our own breakfasts, work, join the dancers for Indian lunch, work, and then have Indian food together in Sangam’s common space for dinner. After dinner we share booze and conversation, sometimes heading back to our rooms early to continue working, other times talking in small groups late into the night.

To give myself some structure, I try to divide time between reading—the work of other writers here (those who write in English), the books I brought with me, or essays or poems I find online—and writing. I always try first to start a new poem, but on the days that doesn’t work, I revise poems in progress or reengineer old ones that never got off the ground. While I’m accustomed to creating in multiple bursts rather than sustained periods, the longer I’m here, the more I’m able to work for long stretches at a time. As a result, my creative process—namely, how deeply I’m able to think about something and how much I’m able to linger in an idea and get to know it—is changing. I suspect I won’t know the real effects of this till much later, but it’s refreshing to feel things moving around in my head in unfamiliar ways.

I am reading Rosanna Warren’s book, Departures, and liking it a great deal, and, since I find her poems especially keen on using the entire spectrum of poetic concreteness between representational abstraction and non-representational abstraction. I’ll use her “Portrait: Marriage” as a grounding for what I am trying to get at here as we continue our discussion on concrete and abstract.

Prior to the modernist “revolution” (it was more of an evolution with certain revolutionary slants) poets used a rich and heavily Greek/Latin-influenced sense of occasion and rhetoric to formulate their poems. There were the small lyrics, and the very free madrigals and airs but even these were homages to the small lyrical poems of the Greeks and Romans. Here are some of the more common rhetorical devices.

1. Apostrophic address: speaking directly to the dead, to roses, to nation states, to states of feeling–more or less orating to that which was not likely to orate back.

Go lovely rose! (Waller)
Oh rose, thou art sick!” (Blake)
Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour (Wordsworth)
Death, be not proud… (Donne)

2. Pagan allusions, and often apostrophic address to various pagan deities, nymphs, dryads, etc, etc. This was a “conceit”–not a true worship of these gods (at least we are told so). Even devout Christians such as Milton freely wallowed in such allusions. In a sense, it gave the poet and the reader a short hand idea of what he or she should be feeling as well as mirroring the glory of Greek and Roman poetry and taking some of its reflected light.

3. Set forms such as Carpe Diem (seize the day), “when I am dead”poems, poems forbidding mourning, poems that pose the transience of human life against the “immortality”of the poet’s verse, the pastoral poetry in which sheep and herders, and flowers are all having a fine time, the blazon which itemizes the lover’s virtues, the anti-blazon that itemizes the lover’s faults, etc, etc. In addition to this there were the Odes, The Elegies, all modeled on Odes and elegies by Horace and Virigil, and so on and so forth.

Most of these poems used set themes (the brevity of youth, the inevitability of death) and then played splendid variations on the usual tropes. Two forms of poem used by the first generation Romantics gave us an evolution away from public sentiment–or public sensibility played out as private anguish–and introduced what might be deemed “real” anguish: the meditative lyric as devised by Coleridge in such poems as “Frost At Midnight” and Wordsworth’s Odes, and the small introspective lyrics (or anecdotal narrative) as exemplified by Wordsworth’s “Lucy Poems.” Coleridge grew bored with the meditative lyric and started writing his more fantastical poems which, via Poe’s love of the abnormal and the macabre, influenced French poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, the symbolists, and, then, of course, the first generation modernists who were reacting against another branch of Romanticism as exemplified by Tennyson and his followers.

In a sense the modernist got their own tradition brought back to them via the French, and the fantastical elements of this tradition–the love of the primal, the violent, the abnormal–is, in its mode as a derangement of the senses, part of the later surrealist, dadaist, cubust branch of modern poetics: heavy on odd and disjointed images, devoid of rhetoric, and forever searching for some sense of language that appeals through the intuition and the senses rather than through rational thought and feeling. If we take the exotic elements out of this equation, and replace them with camp, pop art, and comic routines, we arrive at much of what I call that poetry which leans towards the non-representational abstract: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, New York school, and all their various offshoots.

If we follow the Wordsworthian path of simplicity, conversational sincerity, and candor, and yoke it to the heavy influence of Japanese and Chinese poems on the imagists (they loved such poems because they seemed cleansed of rhetoric) we get the sort of lucid, feeling based, thought based, ontology driven representational abstraction that one finds in the poems of normative free verse writers–those who build a poem by allowing the sensual details, and incidents to imply a greater meaning or ontology.

There are few “pure strains” of these branches. Poets often take a little from each, and, poem for poem, might lead their concrete details toward the representational or non-representational ends of abstraction. Some poets disguised as surrealists are highly emotive (Neruda, Vallejo). Others who wouldn’t spit on an image even approachig surrealism, are highly detached. What I am saying here is that the concreteness of contemporary poetry relies far more on subjective, supposedly “original” form and imagery, and far less on agreed upon themes and tropes. The rhetorical devices still exist and show up in contemporary poems, but they are more about an inner process removed from a public voice, and tend to brood, to meditate, to narrate an event, the lesson or meaning of which is implied rather than overtly stated. So let’s see what Rosanna Warren does here in Portrait: Marriage:

Through the dark feathering of Spruce boughs and crosshatch
of naked lower branches, through
splatters of beechlight and beyond the shuddered patch
of sky trapped in the pond’s net of depth and shade,
you flicker into view then subside,

into mingled inks and umbers, like the paper birch
reflected: shaft of brilliance probing
the pond’s amnesia: whole: fractured at a touch:
that’s how I’ve seen you over the years,
light robing, and disrobing,
an image upon shaken waters:

That’s how I’ve held you, as one embraces and loses
the muscled slide of water in mid-
stroke, cold, hauling forward to new darkness as
it passes.

That’s all one compound, complex sentence, held together by colons, and semi colons. The voice of the poem seems to be claiming that even though this is her spouse, he remains, in some vital way, elusive, in and out–like the flickering, and filigree, and dapple and light of the garden, and of the pond. Warren is considered somewhat of neo-formalist, and the chore she has set for herself here is to get a great deal of supporting concrete images into two remarkably constructed sentences. The next sentence begins an evolution away from the first, as would happen at the volta (turn ) of a sonnet. I think she owes something to Williams’ “Spring and All.” The ending of the first sentence reflects a ghost of that older and more famous poem with its use of the word “cold” (but I digress). Suffice it to say, in this poem, Warren exemplifies the strategy of the contemporary concrete toward representational abstraction; she uses images to imply a meaning: even a spouse, bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh, remains a mystery, and contingent, and provisional–an only now of leaf loam, a contingent and provisional reality within the abstract “fixed” form of marriage.

We might abstract her poem as “Even a husband of many years, even the most intimate of relationships, is a provisional reality, and depends on moment by moment attention to detail.”

We might try poetic abstraction and get clever and put it all into a neat couplet:

Like holding water is my hold on you:
my husband, ever changing, ever true.

Or we might go for a haiku sort of thing:

Through the branches of a garden,
suddenly, my husband of thirty years:
this utterly strange creature, of light of shade.

So I think we have a ball park idea of the complex spectrum of concrete imagery towards either representational or non-representational abstraction. We are always towards an abstraction, one way or the other, but the use of detail, how we emphasize or mute, or play with an image is at the heart of contemporary poetics. A beginner must learn that contemporary poetry–no matter what the school–does not directly state its maxims, and when it does, it does so with a great deal more supporting evidence since nothing can be agreed upon. We do not share the same frames of reference, and we have spent a hundred years raising subjective consciousness to a sort of God. At the same time, we have the cult of science with its own rhetoric of empirical and “objective” fact pitted against the old rhetoric of proverbial and idiomatic thought and feeling. Both our sense of the objective and subjective have changed, and the borders between them are as elusive, as provisional as Rosanna Warren’s spouse.

A poem can be utterly concrete in all its details, yet abstract as to its meaning. This abstraction has better words to define it: vague, illusive, non-cognitive, gibberish, wide open to interpretation, etc. I’m sorry they used the word abstract to name such a poem, since, elsewhere, abstraction means to deal with the principle of the thing rather than the thing. Example: “man is prone to evil” rather than “Freddy is prone to evil.”

Here’s an example of a form called an “abstract” poem. Personally, I’d prefer “non-representational poem” to the extent that the poem is made out of words which may not refer to any idea, emotion, or agreed upon meaning outside the sequence of words. This is by Roy Campbell, supposedly the foremost practitioner of the “abstract poem”:

Of seven hues in white elision,
the radii of your silver gyre,
are the seven swords of vision
that spoked the prophet’s flaming tyre;

We have seven hues, a silver gyre, seven swords of vision, and a prophet’s flaming tyre. Beats me as to what Campbell means, but almost all lyrical poems contain such moments of high gibberish:

The mustard scansion of the eyes (Hart Crane)

This might be called ecstatic speech except that many language poets keep the totality of abstraction, and skip the lyricism:

With Eye Brows Thick As Tacitus
Lars Olson

We dined on sacrifage. Remember the trouncing sun?
and how Melissa’s cape flew off towards infamy?
Wasn’t that nice? The live long day wore
wretched and vociferous gloves
while that distended cousin of Gwen had to
find another ruse for frolicking about
doffing her Pavlovian grin.
Let’s face it, the dance cards of longing
are marked for death, but semblances
of scalloped bawds still pock the surly afternoon
and bring us news of kith and kin
with eye brows thick as Tacitus.

This passage is not exactly abstract. It sounds like the ghost of someone recalling some odd get together. We could paraphrase the poem (at least this section) as a memory poem, but, again, just barely. In a sense, it is borrowing “remember when” and making it odd. The gist of the poem is not regularly forthcoming. The language may be informal, even chatty (“Wasn’t that nice?”) but its effect is abstracted in the sense of not being representational of any standard meaning or expectation. This is the sort of abstraction that language poetry and surrealism often employs. It is one of the tricks in the bag of postmodernism. It is a different order of abstraction than what we commonly mean. So let’s break abstraction down.

Abstraction of meaning, running from high gibberish to a sort of dadaist literalism that makes the meaning absurd or, at the least, makes meaning highly provisional. It is the chief operating device of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, of certain New York school techniques, and of what might be deemed a sort of emotionally detached surrealism. It often comes with many and usually random concrete images. It is often comical, having, at its best, the great childish virtues of Magritte’s paintings. It is a good defense against paraphrase, maudlin sentiment, or commitment to anything overt. It often sounds highly precocious if not intelligent. It does not hedge its bets. It makes no bets. It is all hedges. Here’s the problem: if the person wielding the technique does not understand vamps, and tropes, and little tricks of distorting cliché, then it might all dissolve into a sort of verbal vomit.

Now for the more common idea of abstraction: expressing a principle or idea without being specific in terms of sensual details, or in which the sensual details serve the merely utilitarian purpose of embodying a principle.

Abstract: Man is a moral creature. And sin makes man less than man.

The poetic abstract (using a vivid or concrete image in the service of an idea): Man is an oak, and sin an axe.

Narrative concrete: Jim was a good guy, always did whatever he could to help you out, but then that bitch, Tara came along and ruined him. Now he’s a bum. Just goes to show you how one bad mistake can ruin your life.

Proverbial version of the poetic abstract: “By Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

Abstraction in poetry before the modernists:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast,
Man never is, but always to be, blest. (Pope)

Hope is a thing with feathers (Dickinson)

In either case, concrete sensual detail is there, but barely. We have the human breast, but it is figurative, rather than concrete or specific. We have hope defined by an extended metaphor and embodiment as a bird–but barely. This is poetry as wisdom: its images, though often beautiful, are always at the service of a principle, a truth, and very often, a sort of maxim. You might call this representational abstraction, and the first abstraction we mentioned non-representational abstraction. The concrete is really never absolutely there. The abstract, if it be truly abstract, isn’t there at all. You can’t “see” a season. You can look out a window, see the snow, feel the cold wind, and conclude it is “winter” but “winter” is a general principle embodied in snow and cold wind. You can also abstract by going too far into details without context. If you describe a daisy by painstakingly denoting all its parts–I mean, in every seen-detail–and you do not extend that detailing to an overall picture, chances are the reader won’t know you are talking about a daisy: detail without context is abstract. Context is the necessary abstraction of recognizing the details of a daisy as a daisy. Thus, against all the prevailing wisdom and preference of teachers, I would not tell beginning writers to avoid abstraction. I would tell them to play with the concrete towards representational abstraction or non-representational abstraction. In effect, either toward an “ontology” (the being /meaning implied by the details) or away from that ontology (if it is too pat, too obvious–for example: a grey sky equals sadness). Beginners must learn to employ the full spectrum of concrete details towards representational or non-representational abstraction. Painters know this.

We need two posts to cover this business of the concrete and the abstract. For now, here’s your homework: Read Dylan Thomas’ famous poem in which he admonishes his father to “Not go Gentle into that good night.” In what ways does this poem use details to bring home its abstraction? After reading this, read William Carlos Williams’ “The Last Words of My English grandmother.” Both poems are about dying elderly people. In a sense, Williams’ poem is far less poetic in its diction and imagery, but the grandmother, even though she is dying, comes off as a wonderful old coot and lively woman, whereas we know nothing of Dylan’s father at the end. Read these poems, then look at one of yours and see if you lean more towards one or the other. If you lean more towards the Dylan Thomas, re-write the poem to go more toward the Williams, and vice versa. Good luck.

If we believe metaphors can build civilizations, and if we agree that power is the right to decide which metaphors will be beliieved and instituted as truths, which ones will generate class, or race, or who is worthy, and who is debased, then we get at the heart of why Surrealism was, initially, a political movement whose strategy of disassociation and derangement was an attempt to take metaphors away from the power structures of state, of reason, of class, filter them through the subconscious, and re-empower them free of capitalist oppression. The trouble was, surrealism could do the same thing to Stalinism, or communism, and its process of dismantling agreed-upon authority got many a dadaist and surrealist killed. Later, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry would also begin with a political agenda of destroying the concept of property–deconstructing the authority of the speaker and freeing the auditor to invest or not invest in the process of utterance. But, for our purpose, we are going to look at this shift in metaphor as a change in “willful ignorance.”

All metaphors are, eventually, false, inaccurate, distortians of reality. Reality itself is a distortion. Frost–the conservative–said as much. Yet, by giving metaphors their due and refining them, we can create a sense of order, priority, and narrative that helps us negotiate the complexities of life. The problem arises when we impose that order through our political and religious systems. All metaphors when tested, fall apart, and, once we do not accept them at “face” value, all metaphors begin to seem absurd. Surrealism, dadaism, cubism, absurdism, language poetry, and, to an extent, the New York School of poets, and all the gradations in between, are a choice to emphasize the instability, silliness, and shiftiness of metaphor, while hyping its “process.” Thus, the atrophy of agreed upon meanings leads to the hypertrophy of a “process” of meanings.

Of course, my problem with that is, being idiots of system, we then make everything mere process, mere trope, mere parody, mere mark and counter mark, and we become immured in the qualifications and in the glamour of process, and power again rears its head and wears the terrible mask of the sociopathic trickster, the one who is willfully ignorant that his ongoing deconstructions of the linear, the sensical, the emotive, are, in themselves, a rigid construction– no matter how ongoing. All one might succeed in doing is creating flux and process as ultimate oppression. But let’s put that aside. I believe that a person who still believes in co-herence, and “meaning” and emotional truth can use some of the techniques of those who do not believe in any of those values toward good results. I also believe that a post-modernist does not have to abandon agreed upon meanings, or emotion, or tenderness, but can translate them into his process of deconstruction, derangement of the senses, and absurdist metaphor. We can have our cake and eat it, too, just as long as the cake we have and the cake we eat are not the same.

So this brings me to an excerpt from Breton’s poem “Knot of Mirrors.” The title is, well, knotty. How can you have a knot of mirror? It is nonsensical is it not? Oh, but how can you have a “rosy fingered dawn?” Taken out of its agreed upon acceptance as describing both the color and emotion of seeing the dawn, it is just as absurd and false as Breton’s knot of mirrors. But it is not being so willfully false. Let’s proceed:

The lovely open and shut windows
hanging on the lips of day.

Does day have lips? Not any day I have seen. But does a ship’s prow plough the field of the sea? Nope. This is called personification. If day has a face, then it can have lips, and windows can hang from them. Let us proceed:

The lovely shirt clad windows
The lovely windows with fiery hair in the black night.

So the windows are given human qualities. They may even, once personified, stand in for the whole of a person– a sort of strange synecdoche, or metonymy, but the metaphors here are being freely mixed and confused. The window wears a shirt, or it has fiery hair in the black night. Now we can conjecture that perhaps people are standing in the windows, and the windows are standing in for those people who are standing at the windows, and thus the lovely windows hang from the lips of day. It is complicated, yet no less or more absurd than conventional metaphor. It is not “Agreed” upon. It seems to be generated from a personal and private consciousness (or unconscious), which we may observe but not share in. This quality promotes the sense of voyeurism much modern art is comprised of: we are watching a verbal performance we do not wilfully pretend is a mirror held up to nature, and we either enjoy the process of this performance or grow indignant and insist it make sense in the way we are used to things making sense. We are in a dream world and our agreements with it may be only sympathetic rather than actual, but this is true of all verbal constructs. Modernism and Post-modernism do not hide the strings of the puppet show. Sometimes, there are no puppets and only strings. There is a dream world. During the day someone might mention to you that their lover bought a new car, and that night, you might dream a Ferrari rides up to your window, and, somehow, that Ferrari is also your own lover– disguised as a Ferrari. Or it is both a Ferrari and your lover?

Anyway, the point is, once we agree all metaphors break down, that they are distortions that allow us to enter a schema of distortions, we need not be so dismissive of certain surreal images. They are not rational. Old, pre-modernist metaphor is not rational either, but it depends on the agreed upon conceit of rationality upon the metaphor. Phrases that make total sense are truly, when scrutinized in this manner, absurd. If I tell you: “I am facing facts,” you know what I mean and accept, unless you decide not to. If not, you say, where are these “facts” you face? I can see a wall, or a statue, or me, and you can “face” these (again metonymy and synecdoche) but you can not “face” the facts. And “face” is, itself, figurative, a part for the whole.

So our problem with surrealism or language poetry is not one of nonsense, but of nonsense that seems outside the normative boundaries of our usual comparisons, and assumptions.

In my next several posts, I am going to talk about metaphors and the invisible neutrino of “and” that lies beneath them. I will make the following contentions:

1. Metaphors are as much about disassociation as association
2. Metaphors generate subtexts.
3. Consciousness and metaphor are inseparable.
4. To present two unlike objects is to create the implicit arc of metaphor.

5. All language is relational.

In a sense, language is innately metaphorical because no word is the thing or state of being it describes. We can call a person “Big Ben” or “tree” if he is tall, “bean pole” if he is skinny, or we can call an obese person “slim” or “bean pole.” This is ironic, sarcastic, incongruous. An obese person is certainly not “Slim,” but to say to an obese friend, “Hey Slim,” can carry far more meaning than calling him “hey, obese friend.” First, we may be assuming an intimacy that is allowing us to tease him (one must be careful of assuming anything in this post-structural age in which the rigid structure of political correctness has been raised). Depending on the tone, the situation, and our attitude, “Slim” can be endearing, scathing, or merely habitual. For this reason, I will use Bentham’s idea of laudatory, neutral, and dislogistic registers of speech.

We can call a person a “leader (laudatory, unless we are being tongue in cheek). We can call that same person “assertive” (one of the qualities of a leader, and neutral in tone) or we can call him a “tyrant,” bossy, macho, aggressive, a slave driver, or Hitler (dislogistic). Here’s the miracle of language: suppose this person has just made love, and he ravished his lover in a way she approves of, and when they are done, and doing advanced Yoga (for who smokes afterwards in this age of madness?), she turns to him and kisses his assertive shoulder and says: “Aww… my little Hitler.” She has just made Hitler a term of endearment. But does Hitler go away as a possibly dislogistic implication? Not at all! Thus, a dislogistic term, used in an affectionate or laudatory way creates a sort of dialectical energy and charge. At the same time, she is being loving, she is also affirming that this man is assertive, or macho, or, perhaps, even a power junkie, such as Hitler.

This is why comedy often tells us what we have built a piety around. If you want to know the piety of a culture, see what its comics are mocking or tweeking. In the old screw ball comedy, My Man Geoffrey, two rich and spoiled society girls go to a junkyard on a scavenger hunt for charity to find a “lost man.” If they can bring a homeless man back to the mansion, they will win the scavenger hunt. The movie was made during the depression, and this “hunt” immediately established the cluelessness and privilege of the sisters and showed the seriousness of that age by making light of it. It both cushioned the full blow of the plight, and served to define it.

Metaphor then is volatile, and it is always relational. Even when it seeks to detach, it joins, and when it would join, it detaches. It creates disassociation as much as it creates association. Metaphors are properties of fractal and generative consciousness, but they are also distortion. We live in our verbal universe, communicate complex emotions, negotiate the most subtle nuances through a series of distortions. We can fall prey to our metaphors. In point of fact, consciousness could be defined as the willingness to fall prey to one’s metaphors. We can think, reason, learn, even negotiate space and time without metaphors, but we can not be fully human in the sense of nuance, irony, and social parlance without them. Our age, being still caught in the scientific myth of denotative terms, objective reality, empirical truth, has fed this myth to those who would root out injustice, and prejudice, by making sure all speech is neutral–devoid of either its dislogistic or laudatory registers.

Ah, but here’s the rub: A child blows up his sister, and the father calls him into the living room and says: “Now son… blowing up your sister was inappropriate.” That might get a laugh years ago, but, in our present “professional” world, pedophilia, blowing up one’s sister, and eating San Francisco might very well be called “inappropriate actions” and no one laughs. This scares the hell out of me. To use Aspergers as a metaphor, there is something Aspergian about this state of affairs. We can blame scientists. We can blame the cult of neutrality. We can even blame a sort of extreme dadaist literalism. Our neutral speech is as much a semiotic indicator of power and control as our dislogistic and laudatory speech–far more so. Someone living in a dislogistic register will give us the sense of someone ignorant, crude, not in command of his or her emotions. Someone living in a laudatory register will give us the sense of a suck up, a cheerleader, a person courting favor.

Social intelligence calls for both negotiating these registers along situational and contextual lines, and blurring those lines. Neutral speech can be anger and ultimate violence made conspicuous by its absence. To say “we have decided to disregard the civilian casualties in a particular campaign and to pursue our objective with extreme prejudice” is to apply a “professional” gloss to the intentional killing and destruction of thousands. Language allows us to call genocide a “final solution.” Just as a relation means separate as much as together, our language distances us from our deeds as much as it defines them. It allows us to call the death of children in warfare “collateral damage.” As for me, I’d rather have someone call me an asshole than refer to me as “expendable.” To take all the emotion out of a verbal construct in no way lessens the violence of a culture, but may even increase it. When a metaphor allows us to detach, and all metaphors allow us to detach, it becomes dangerous, but, without that danger, no consciousness, and no poetry is possible.

A metaphor then seeks to be misunderstood as well as understood, albeit in a fruitful and generative way. Poets, before scientists, were the first disciplinarians where metaphors are concerned. They did not want them mixed. They did not want them too imprecise. A poet is the lion tamer of metaphor, but, in creating a lion to tame, he also makes a lion who can possibly eat a culture, define it, distort it. “The age of reason” is a metaphor. If we break it down, it is not accurate. We move toward grace by a judicious stumbling. This stumbling is consciousness, and consciousness depends, to a very great extent, on our metaphors–not only their precision, but their power to distort.

“My love is like a red, red rose,” is a simile. My “love is a rose” is a metaphor. The simile can contain a likeness or affinity without being beholden to a full substance. The simile qualifies. It says: my love is like a rose because, like a rose, it is beautiful to me and makes me feel lively the way roses indicate the life of summer has arrived. And it is sweet to the smell, and soft to the touch, but it also has thorns and can hurt. And it is brief and must wither and die. A metaphor says to the simile, “Well, if that’s the case, my love IS a rose!” Metaphors are committed to falsehood and inexactness for the sake of a possibility more vital than precision. They allow us to move more quickly through the world by a series of almost, close to, and close enough.

The great sage of consciousness, Julian Jaynes, broke metaphors down into “metaphrands” (the unseen quality or emotion we are trying to get at), “metaphier” (the thing we use to get at it), “paraphrands” (the subtext of the metaphrand), and “paraphier” (the subtext of the paraphrand). We will confine ourselves to the metaphrand and the metaphier, here:

“My love” is the metaphrand. I want to express its qualities, so I resort to a metaphier of the rose. Now, once this metaphor enters the language, everyone accepts it at face value. When that happens you have a cliche. You can either refuse to use the cliche or you can have fun with it, deconstruct it, or, like a good dadaist, take it absolutely literally. In a Marx brothers movie, Chico might say to Groucho: “Boss, it’s raining cats and dogs.” Groucho might say: “Quick man! Have you no sense? Go out there and put some of that rain on a leash… I could use a good pet.”

This sort of humor comes from taking the figurative literally. Comedy is of the head more than the heart because, in addition to testing and teasing our behavioral pieties, it tests and teases our sacred metaphors. In a Marx Brothers movie, the absurdity of dreams is generated by taking a metaphor with all its metapheirs and exploding it. We “derange” the senses– something Rimbaud advocated at the beginning of modernist poetry. A simple way into modernism and post-modernism is to say that, like pre-modernism, it moves through a universe of metaphors. Unlike pre-modernism, it seeks to emphasize not the associative, but the dis-associative aspects of metaphors, and, by doing so, create a new perspective by incongruity. In this respect, it is essentially comic, though often in a terrifying, nightmarish way. So to re-cap, metaphors connect unlike things, create relationship, and allow us to move through the world while at the same time creating disconnects, confusions, and falsehoods. Post-modernism emphasizes this later power.

In the next post we will look at a poem by Andre Breton that functions in this respect. Some people don’t “get” the Marx Brothers. They are “silly.” Some people don’t get why anyone would feel pleasurably sad watching a sunset. They lack that emotional nuance. In the one case, an overly pious F-factor (feeling) may short circuit the humor. In the other case, an overly emphasized T-factor (thought) might make the person blind to “pleasurable sadness.” Let’s try to be capable of both, but each new poem will cause us to choose, and in a hundred subtle ways.

To carve a face in wood you must practice. And practice and practice. You must practice eyes, especially, and mouths and noses, though you cannot think of them that way. Think only of the wood and the edge of the knife and of shapes. You must break the face into pieces, in how you think of it, and think not of faces but of pieces and parts, 0f shapes and lines. Practice triangles with your knife. Practice triangles with your gouge. Practice circles and ovals, oblongs and uneven polygons, rectangles and slightly-off squares.

Cut triangles with the tip of your knife for eyes, pairs of triangles on each side of each eye. Connect them with thin, arching lines, cutting a curl of wood away, leaving a circle remaining, a mound, a pupil, inside.

Practice until you have a whole boards of eyes. Practice until there are a million ears clustered in irregular patterns on a totem that could be an icon of a wooden listening god. Put it somewhere where you can see it. Let it sit and look at it, all those wooden ears, all those wooden eyes, all those abstract, crescent-shaped smiles. Then sharpen your knife again. Feel the fine edge on the edge of your thumb.

I started carving when I was 14. I started writing around then too. Both were really bad. I wrote a rhyming poem about a chicken I’d owned. It was pretty much what you would think. The first thing I carved was a sheep. I imagined I would carve a nativity, a whole set, sheep and shepherds, wise men, cow, and Christ, but I didn’t understand my material, and didn’t understand my tools. In the end the sheep had three legs. There was a giant, raggedly hole where the left haunch was supposed to be. The ears and nose were about the same size, giving it the look of a three-headed, three-legged thing. I had no idea how to carve something that looked like wool. It was only a sheep if you squinted and were generous.

The poem was published. I started getting letters, semi-regular, from one of those scam poetry places. They said they could see I had talent. A fresh new voice.

No one ever lied to me about the sheep.

There was a carving club of old men in the town where I lived—retirees. They were grandfathers and WWII vets with shops with band saws and stacks of carving wood. They looked at the sheep I had and showed me how I hadn’t paid attention to the grain, hadn’t understood the wood.

First they asked me what I was using to carve. I showed them my knife, a three-bladed pocket knife I’d found in a cardboard box of tools at an estate sale from where an old man had died.

No, they said. That’s not what you want to use. They showed me knives, better knives, and which tool to use when.

I have read, since then, a lot of books and a lot of articles about how to write. I’ve listened to a lot of advice. I’ve read a lot and listened to a lot about how to carve, too.

The instruction on carving is always better.

For one thing it’s always practical. It’s technical, specific, and helpful.

Most of the advice on writing I’ve read is mostly inspirational. There’s nothing wrong with inspiration, of course, but it doesn’t help a rhyming chicken poem. Most of it ends up being premised, too, on the idea that I am an artist, and we are artists, and special, and spiritual, and its romantic mumbo-jumbo, mostly, that doesn’t tell you how to get better. It doesn’t tell you how to write better, how to write a better line. It works only to preserve your view of yourself.

Most of the rest of was truisms, clichés, and crap.

Woodcarvers, by comparison, never told me to carve what I know. They never said, everyone has a great carving in them. Instead, they said, keep at it. Keep working. Try this. Try again. See how this tool can be used to do this job?

They told me how to get better.

They didn’t think of themselves as artists, the old men. They didn’t encourage me to think of myself that way either, didn’t assume I could just reach into myself, magically or mystically, and come out with a great work. Carving was a craft, to them, something you did because you wanted to do it, because you got joy from doing it and doing it well. It was something you worked at. Something you learned how to do by doing, and doing it, got better. They didn’t assume there was a secret, 10 tricks to learn to become successful. They assumed it was work. They assumed it would take practice.

I took some classes, from some of them. In a class the teacher carves something simple. Then you copy him. He makes a cut; then you make a cut. At the end you have a piece that’s almost just like his, and you know the concepts of how to carve. Then you go practice that, and try to do something better. I’ve never heard of a writing class where you learn to write that way.

With carving, there were workshops, too. In the workshops, you sat there and carved, then someone with more experience would say, “try it this way.” They’d show you what they were working on, and how they did it. If you cut yourself, they’d show you how to stop the cut with superglue. They’d suggest that next time you try something harder than what you did before.

They’d encourage you to keep working. Practicing. No one ever acted like they thought they were a genius, or like what they were doing was too amazing to be understood or appreciated. It was a craft, and we were all very practical.

They’d say, “what kind of wood is that you’re working with?” They’d say, “what you want with wood is something with a real consistent grain.”

They’d say, “let me show you how to sharpen a knife real good.”

Then they’d show you how to feel the fine edge with the edge of your thumb. Then you’d practice, and practice some more.

To carve a face you must know how to pick a piece of wood and how to sharpen a knife and to hold a knife. You have to know how to use it. When to be delicate. When to be bold. Carving is tools and materials and practice. You must know how the knife is going to cut and how the wood is going to be cut, how it will be before you slice. You have to know, and can only know from having done it, and done it repeatedly.

Carve until your hand hurts from holding the knife. Pile up chips in your lap. Pile up chips around your feet until the feathery frays of white wood stick to your socks and get into your shoes. Put a chip in your mouth and taste it. Taste the grain with your tongue. Stretch your hand and massage between the muscles until it feels better.

Cut an isosceles notch with the flat of the knife below what will be the nose. Cut curved lines for what will be the smile lines with the tip of your knife, pulling the blade with a paring motion, curving around, pressure from your pointer knuckle, towards your thumb. Work with the grain of the wood. Curl away from the triangle eyes, up from the eyes, length of the blade, twist of the wrist for the brows.

Put the man you’ve carved up in a window. Look at him with the light. Think about what you’ll do next time.

For beginning writers, rules of thumb are important. My goals are simple:

1. Get them to avoid cliches–not of thought (almost all thoughts are cliche), but of language and image.
2. Get them to play with cliche so that they master them rather than being mastered by them.
3. Teach them to vary sentence length against the line.
4. Teach them to be aware of word choice.
5. Teach them to know the difference between the concrete and the abstract, and all the hues and shades in between (a big mistake we make is teaching them to show, not tell without letting them know that the showing must tell–that an image must work for the poem.
6. Re-orient their sense of the “poetic” to include ordinary experience rendered in an extraordinary way, rather than extraordinary experience rendered in a typical, and hackneyed “poetic” way.

Specifically, let’s take the first two goals here. I noticed that many of my students, when in the throes of an injured heart would have to mention “piercing blue eyes, “cold blue eyes,” etc, etc. Those blue eyed boys were down right evil. I explained that the Russian novelists had exhausted just about every shade of eye in the 19th century, and song writers of pop were just about the only people who could still get away with making a big deal out of eyes. Take blue eyes crying in the rain. Or “I’ll never get over those blue eyes.” Green eyes hardly ever got mentioned. Why were blue eyes so important? I explained that, according to evolutionary biologists, blue eyes made the pupil look dilated, and a dilated pupil is a sign of enthusiasm, interest, and atavistic sexual fitness. Thus, according to biologists, blue eyes, especially when they are looking directly at you, seem to “pierce” you. It’s an optical allusion, but obviously effective. I said the next time you got into heavy eye contact with a set of baby blues, imagine an annoying scientist narrating the moment.

Hook Up Olympics
Carol Schmitt

“Ladies and gentlemen, our subject is now
making significant visual contact
with the highly symmetrical, V shaped
mesomorph with the piercing blue eyes.
Jim, what’s happening here?

Well, Frank, I believe he’s about to perform
the cut off the crowd and shelter her
in the canopy of his well proportioned arms
maneuver that won him the gold at Edinburgh…
No… Look At that Frank! She’s
peering up shyly and rounding her shoulders, while
fully exposing her neck, pushing a
fetchingly wayward strand of hair from her ear,
and bringing her secondary sexual characteristics
together in a subtle, but definitely effective
display of cleavage. Good move!

Will he look, Jim?
Frank, Swen knows his strengths.
He’s keeping his baby blues, his dazzling
azures fixed on her sad and limpid browns.
Alright, here comes the moment of crisis.
He’s not looking. Will she laugh and show her
pearly whites, lick her lips, bend one knee
slightly towards his crotch?
Ah… she’s broken eye contact! The subject is
shyly fingering her necklace.
Swen looks down. He’s got a bead on her
breasts. She looks up again. Here comes the cock
block Frank! Ulga’s one of the best in the business–

a whiny, co-dependent room mate
who knows exactly when to ruin any seduction
with her unbridled neediness.
This is not Swen’s forte. At Sidney, he blew it,
insulted the cock block directly. Not good.
Even a turn here to block the block’s
access will cost him points. He’ll have to hope
his piercing blue eyes have done the trick.

And there it is Frank! The subject has
blocked the cock block, herself. Perfectly legal.
She’s turned her back three quarters and is now
melting in his large yet oddly gentle hands.
In this particular contest, Ulga is not
allowed to puke up her Southern Comfort.
And now she taps the subject’s shoulder.
I think it’s too little, too late. Yes!
No response. We have a winner here Frank.
Swen and his piercing blue eyes have done it again.

The point of this comic exercise is to blaspheme against the cliche, to expose it, to play with it, to come at things from an odd angle. In effect, to be imaginative. But student’s pieties run deep, and they often don’t want their sad and lonely lyrical thoughts on the boy (or girl) with the blue eyes to be trampled upon. I make them work for it. One of my students wrote:

His cold blue eyes melted my heart
until I was frozen by his cruel indifferent gaze.

Well, I asked her how cold could melt, and melt could freeze? I made her read John Donne. I gave her a pep talk on oxymoron. I said: “make an analogy between his cold blue eyes and global warming. She wrote:

The arctic ice melts off the coast of Alaska.
Bears and Walruses drown, lost in a three year thaw,
but I remain frozen, melted
in your cold blue eyes.
For my heart, there is no global warming,
no rising sea in which to drown my pain…

Now this isn’t good, but it’s a big improvement over what she had, and it teaches her to play with an image, to make leaps between disparate things to form a bridge of meaning.

Here’s a prompt (and example) to help beginning writers deal with the first two rules.

PROMPT: take a cliche and exaggerate it to the point of absurdity.

“Majestic mountains”

One day the mountain grew bored
with being majestic,
and tumbled down its slopes to sit at the Lodge’s bar.
It wanted to be convivial. It wanted company.
Most called this avalanche. I tell you
it was boredom–the way things
tumble, the way things fall,
only to be themselves again.

That’s one way to work at the first two goals. There are many other possible ways to being working with the first two rules.

How do you help beginning writers avoid cliches?

Musicians, jazz musicians, keep fake books–at least they used to–with all the chord changes as well as written-down alternatives they may want to try. Why don’t poets keep fake books? I know Thomas Lux has his own personal anthology of poems he likes or is interested in. It’s a great idea.

To make a good fake book,
1. Leave plenty of room in the margins to write notes.
2. Leave doodle space.
3. Keep the backs of the paper blank so you can write the poem out in your own hand, or write an answer to it, or a variation on it. When you write someone else’s poem out by hand, you get an entirely different relationship to the language–the line, word choice, etc.

Here’s another strange practice, but one that appeals to me as a sort of loopy scientist: Read a poem once silently. Close the book, take a pen or pencil and jot down the exact lines in your fake book (or what you think are the exact lines you remember). Even if it’s only an image, jot it down. Do this with every poem you encounter. Five months from now, see what it is you remembered: study it by mood, by words, by sound relationships. This is how your neural self stores immediate acts of language. It is a hand print of your own immediate memory. It will also show you how alliteration, repetition, and strong language are all mimetic devices. Look for a pattern to your memory. You will then have some idea what makes language immediately memorable to you, and you can use this knowledge for your work. Keep this in a note book. Don’t revisit the previous memory jottings until the five months are up. Read a poem a day, and do this. See what your mind misremembered or added to the text. I know a girl who remembered a line by Emily Dickinson: “I like a look of agony because I know it’s true.” She mis-remembered it as: “I like a look of agony because I know its you.” I loved it.

Once, in a kingdom called Catholic grammar school, I was made to memorize “The Raven” and The Song of Hiawatha.” I got up there and lost it. This is what I said (I spell Longfellow’s Indian place name wrongly on purpose):

By the shores of gitchee goomy,
Stood the noble Hiawatha
quoting from the other shore:
Only this and nothing more.

I spliced them, diced them, and mangled them. What I remembered flawlessly was the meter which is trochaic tetrameter. I screwed up. The kids laughed. The nun tried not to laugh, and then did. Later, when we were briefly alone, I said:

“Sister… did Poe steal from Longfellow.? They got the same sound.”
“Joseph, I wish your memory and your work ethic were on par with your perception. Poe did indeed imitate some of the effects of trochaic meter found in Longfellow. Mr. Poe could be somewhat of a thief.”

We remember rhythms and sounds because they are the verbal mold sets for imagery and words. Free verse has irregular molds and so it often relies on the imagery for its effects. Modern, written prose uses mimetic devices sparingly, unless it is trying to sell something. You will know when something is being sold because the sisters of repetition, and alliteration, and rhyme, and short sentences, and chiasmus, and rhetorical oration will come into play:

Buy bonds!
Where’s the beef?
If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.
Play it again, Sam!

The last line was never actually said in the movie. The whole culture misremembered it. We do not remember words or even language. We remember effect, usually rhythmic effects. This is why jingles, sound bytes, slogans, and commercials are so memorable (and so dangerous). By keeping a record of what you remember immediately, or misremember, you are keeping an “effect diary.” I like that. I think I am going to do it myself!

Many poets obsessed with the page turn against a poem the moment they are too aware of its effects. They do not recognize this as snobbery, as a prejudice. They don’t get on Gerard Manley Hopkins for it because they have been trained to think he is a great poet and would not dare to accuse him of overdoing the alliteration.

I always wanted a t shirt that said, “Rose, thou art sick!” I can’t imagine a more jolting, a more provocative start to a poem. It would be nice to advertise Blake.

So in class, I’d like to have a slogan-bot. A little machine that would spit out catch phrases, received ideas, slogans, and cliches, on a fairly constant basis, in the voice of that English lady in cars that have a GPS device–only with no priority of order. I would turn it on for five minutes every day and just let the students listen. It would seem comic. It would train the mind of a student to associate the sounds of sound bytes with incongruity and to be suspicious. Eventually, the student would be conditioned to have a sound byte detector, and to test language that nut shelled things. He or she would be trained to know the effects of slogans–not necessarily the slogans. That would be better. That would be training the ear. This would both teach cliche, and train the student to use effective sounds, but without simplistic thoughts.

PHOTO CREDIT: See some more amazing jazz-themed photos.


Gene Tanta begins his first book of poems, Unusual Woods, with a 20-page essay that takes shots at T.S. Eliot, Harold Bloom and others. Why does he do this and what is he trying to say?

Surrealism and one of its American progeny, Deep Image poetry, have never been fully accepted. Their stock has taken a dip in the last few decades. But they are still with us, and they shape our contemporary poetry scene arguably as much as any of the other big guns of modern poetry: Whitman, Imagism, Symbolism.

What Gene Tanta has done in Unusual Woods is take the project of Deep Image poetry, which is to recuperate and shape myths from the images buried in our collective unconscious, and make it local rather than universal. In particular, he is assembling images from various fragments of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. (The collective unconscious is of course a Jungian concept made famous by archetypal criticism and the Deep Image poets. It is the idea that the collective memories of the human race emerge in various forms, such as myths, folklore and the like.)

As I said, Tanta makes poetry out of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. I say it this way because it is different from any of the following: (a) poetry built on the cultural memory particular only to the Romanian and/or Romanian immigrant experience, (b) the rendering of images and myths only for Romanians, or (c) a poetry that has a particularly Romanian (political) subtext. Instead, Tanta realizes that while his personal and Romanian self is reflected in his work, his American immigrant experience (and his generally human experience) is as well. In fact, the images that make up the 13-line demi-sonnets of Unusual Woods are universally human (while being contemporary). And he is creating “myths” that are universal.

So why does Tanta make such a big deal about his heritage and immigrant identity? In effect, Tanta is doing what any Deep Image poet does (or did)—we all make what we can out of the pieces of the collective unconscious that have been lodged in our particular psyches. A Jungian expects no more or less of anyone. The difference between Tanta and the traditional Deep Image approach is that Tanta foregrounds the particularity and individuality of his own memories and experiences. He knows his cultural biography is the lens through which he experiences and makes sense of his American (and generally human) experience.

This is a level of introspection that most of the Deep Image poets cared only somewhat about. (Jerome Rothenberg is an obvious exception, but he is better understood as the arbiter of ethnopoetics.) The others, such as Robert Bly, James Wright, Robert Kelly, are fully invested in the project of finding (somewhat interchangeably) universal and American myths. Also, in as far as they saw themselves as continuing the project of the great modernists, especially the Imagists, these poets were loosely committed to poetry as a universal art form, even if they didn’t take it quite as far as to say a poem exists only as an aesthetic object. These days, our claims about poetry are more modest. We recognize that the role of cultural biography inevitably ties our writing to material, contextual existence.

Recent decades have seen a surge in the “hybrid” poetries of American immigrants. What is particularly interesting about this poetic scene is that Eastern European poets writing as immigrants in English seem, generally, to be keenly aware of the “hybrid” quality of their poetry—they know they have more than one tap root in cultural experience. And yet, they remain ambiguous, or even agnostic, about what the particular components of this hybrid poetics are.

In his essay, however, Tanta offers at least a few concrete explanations. First, he, as an ESL poet, experiences idiomatic language as non-transparent. This shapes his experience of the language, which results in poetry that, like misunderstood idioms, mean different things to different readers: “As a form of linguistic irony, the idiomatic expression itself stands for two things at once, which of these two things the reader comes away with depends on the community with which the reader identifies” (30). This makes our reading of the text contingent and plural.

Another, more significant aspect of Tanta’s cultural biography comes from the mash-up of linguistic elements present within the Romanian tongue—partly Western Latinism, partly mongrelized Turkish and Slavic, Romanian has shaped the way Tanta approaches reality: “My own resistance to binary thinking feels ‘implicit’ and ‘experiential’ . . . and manifests in my practiced refusal to fit into categories of Romanian or American, Poet or Artist, Aesthete or Propagandist” (33). The claim is elemental and common, but it is essential: it’s not simply that different “content” is being inserted into our brains—it’s also that cultural and linguistic features have constructed our consciousness to process the content differently.

Ultimately, though, Tanta wants to have it both ways, and I think he is right. Even though both the form and content of Tanta’s work are particular to his Romanian-immigrant experience, he insists that his poetry is accessible to everyone. His poetry, he says, exists both as aesthetic objects and political propaganda. This is absolutely true about all poetry, not just his own. Inevitably, literary criticism will come to see that literature is always both. Most critics probably know this but have allowed themselves to stray from this obvious fact because the theory wars have created a false dichotomy between cultural and formalist criticism. Tanta brings us back to earth. We all experience texts as both universal and particular—both aesthetic and political:

I will not commit the essentialist error of taking myth of origin . . . only literally or figuratively: both the practical hardships of dislocation and the aesthetic insights that may accompany such cultural shifting go into creating our myths of origin. Cultural identity has multiple and simultaneous histories and motivating factors but this does [not] make it arbitrary. (35)

Later, he writes, “As a poet, I am interested in what the English language can do through how I use it. . . . As a critic, I am faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content” (36).

Tanta’s essay offers a corrective to the rest of the poetry world. Our readings need to focus on and scrutinize the dialectic between cultural biography and aesthetic form. Tanta claims merely that we need to do so if we are to understand his poetry, but it is not hard to see the wider implications of his argument—this goes for all literary texts. My own sense is that literary criticism has been beating around this bush for a while, even though when we are reading in our right minds most of us would probably concede this fact without difficulty. Many of us are probably already on board with this. Still, there is a notable absence of theory that directly targets the relationship between cultural biography and aesthetics. It’s odd and rather shocking.

Next time I will look at the poems of Unusual Woods, which are gorgeous and demonstrate what Tanta is saying in his essay. It is rewarding to read a poet who is willing explain his poetic approach and is knowledgeable enough to understand it without self-delusion.