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ambitions

If asked what my greatest ambition was, I’d admit it was still to write a great poem–not a great poem as per some throng of critics, or high powered literary figures, but great to one talented, intelligent, engaged reader who I trust to never let me down in terms of aesthetic judgment. This reader exists only in the mind, as a sort of faith. At times, this reader has found partial embodiment in certain individuals, but never full, and never in that “Admiring bog” Emily Dickinson joked about. The bog never liked me much and, at an early point in my so called writing life, I had to realize the in crowd might patronize me, even hold me in a sort of pleasant regard, but I am not idol material, and on those rare occasions when I have been “Worshipped” I did my best to dispossess my worshippers of that opinion, even highlighting my flaws (usually ad-nauseum).

To put it succinctly, I am a failure, but I am a failure in a worthy game, and that is better than being a success in a rigged contest. The University encourages networking so as to build your profile, ballyhoo your accomplishments, and promote your career. I must be some anachronism because I find that sort of ongoing and relentless self promotion to be immoral, even evil. If you are not standing for something more than yourself, then you are not standing. That’s my own personal feeling on the matter, and I am, no doubt wrong. The self Whitman stood for was as much a creature of faith as the “ideal” reader for whom I wish to write a great poem. The self of networking differs in this respect from the self of true community in that it sees others only as means to an end, public service only as a means to an end. It does charity to be “Seen.” It is Machiavelli Lite. Its self is all Ayn Rand meets Machiavelli and has a blood drive. It believes in nebulous words such as excellence and achievement. When I speak of greatness, I mean it in a far from nebulous way: I mean to fail at something so magnificent, so sublime, so beautiful and good that even your failure seems, in the best light, holy. I sound like third rate Don Quixote, but why not? Better that than a third rate Ayn Rand.

I did things lately I would never normally do: I asked a student of mine who has become celebrated to write a blurb for me. This was not easy, or even close–not because of pride, but because I love this former student, am proud of him and felt I was taking something good and decent and lowering it to the level of business–which I was, but I did this because I have a wife and baby, and most of the people who have power over me do not think like me: they think in names, they think in terms of who is published where, and who went to what school blah, blah, blah, and, frightening as this may be to me, they are true believers in this crap. I need to care about my daughter and wife–not myself. My former student was gracious enough to write something for me, but I am in great conflict and pain about it. We spent years eating very unhealthy food together, sometimes at 2 in the morning, talking about everything–including poetry. He helped me as much as I helped him, and I don’t mean in terms of a career–I mean in terms of helping me remain a human being, helping me do time in this existence, in this place. To sully that by asking for an intro or blurb was hard to bear, but, I feel necessary. Oh I don’t know. I don’t know what is necessary anymore. As you grow older, you think you know and that is horrible. I really don’t understand what it truly necessary. I do know I chose the vocation of marriage and children, and this is greater and more important than my vocation to teach or write a great poem–but if I don’t promote myself, or do what I can to meet the world where it is–am I a good husband or father? Hell, no. To compromise and cheapen myself in this respect is holy, but it is not holy to be a true believer in this crap: it’s all a lie. All of it: the kudos, the achievements, the publications are all a lie and a lie can be a beautiful thing–like a great fish story–provided you don’t start believing in it yourself. My greatest ambition is to write a great poem, and I know this is also true of my student who is now somewhat famous. I know I did not fail him in this respect. I did not teach him to believe the wrong sort of lies.

The reader you wish to write for is an act of faith. If I teach this poetry at its highest level, then I teach you to fully immerse yourself in the study of poetry as a way of life–not as a course. You cannot teach poetry as a course. Work shopping is not enough. Anything done in a workshop could be taught online: any form, any aesthetic, any period of literary history is available online–just Google it. What I have to give is complete immersion in a faith that failing at the highest levels is worthwhile. I am teaching you to stand for more than just yourself. If I don’t teach you that, then Obama ought to replace me with an online course, and the babble of faux achievements ought to rule forever. Amen. To be a failure in the best way possible is a worthy thing. The world won’t understand it. The world understands “published in” and “Studied with.” When you go to get tenure, or into graduate school, you’ll be lucky if they look at the work first. I won’t lie: network, schmooze, do good things in order to be seen, do all that stuff, but remember if you are truly ambitious as I am, as my former student is, this won’t ever satisfy you. The crap they put on school promotions will be just that: crap. I want you to want to write a poem as great as Keats. You want to believe that somewhere, in some room late at night a great reader Whitman claimed every poet needed is reading your poem with compassion, and understanding, and more skill than you could ever imagine. This reader is more important than you are–because he or she is your soul stripped of the ego, the flaws, the petty envy and ambitions, and he/she exists when everything else is damaged. I can teach you to believe in this reader. If I can’t, then let’s just follow the syllabus. I’ll assign, you execute, everyone will be happy or not happy according to the usual process, you’ll get your grade, I’ll get my paycheck, and my daughter Clare will have a roof over her head. None of these are bad things. On paper, we will call it an education. That’s the neutral term for being processed. I want to believe there is more to life than mere process. Hell if I know, but I want to believe this is an amazing privilege–to preside over something greater than myself. The jury is out. Who knows? Judging by University Facebooks, and bios, and vitae, I’m wrong. That’s OK. I’ll cross that bridge when I burn it.

Today I am going to speak on a panel in front of graduate students discussing publication. I was surprised when I was asked, but found out I was third or fourth choice (I suspected that) when other professors turned it down. I will go inspite of the fact that, at the moment, I can’t speak above a whisper (should be OK with a mic) and even though most of those students are immured in careerism. I will go because they are immured in careerism, and do not care for anything except how and where to publish. Well, they do, but you’d never know it. Everything they want me to tell them is already available in dozens of books on how and where. There’s even a spot on line that gives all the ratios of publications , breaks it all down,and analyzes in almost sabermetric like detail. I will be facing Ivan Ilyich everywhere–no Tolstoys. Now when one has lived to the ripe old age of 55, one should expect Ivan Ilyich everywhere–the professional, the careerist, the one who plans his future to the last detail. Unlike Tolstoy’s Ilyich, most Ivans never get a mysterious but fatal disease. They don’t have conversion experiences. They die as neatly and as normally as they have lived–as Rilke put it–in 800 beds. They fill our best magazines and our best presses, and they don’t care if no one one cares as long as the few right people care, and sometimes any faculty news list sounds like Diane Chambers, the pedantic bartender from the old show Cheers, attempting to do an intellectual’s version of rap boasting: and I am in this top magazines, and I just did this and I just did that. And (Sprewell wheels, Sprewell wheels, Sprewell wheels!) I hate it. If I hate it, then it must be inside me. We only hate that which is inside us and we disown it at our peril. Tolstoy and the aristocracy hated the vulgar ambitions of the middle class because the Nobility was fading and part of them secretly wanted to hold on to the arts, and work in some capacity, and part of them was loathe to admit their art and culture had been built on the shit and sweat of serfs. They saw themselves as one with the land and one with their serfs, and the last thing the rising middle class wanted to be was poor and “one” with the serfs. The middle class sees clearly. They know what being one with the serfs really is. So it goes.

Hate does not come from God; it comes from some part of us that secretly shares in the crime by which we are outraged. No moralist is from God. Moralists are from 2-year-olds outraged that “Tommy did that!” When the middle class hates the poor it is because part of them is still back there and terrified of making a return visit. I do not hate the poor because I was raised to believe a life of art and the mind is available to all. I still believe that: I am thick headed. Success in the arts however is largely based on some talent for being a careerist–a subtle one, even an overt and obvious one. This is not the arts; it’s the art biz. part of me is a snob, too regal to embrace careerism and professionalism. This is wrong of me.If I would be fair, then I must admit that my parents raised me to think poetry was a given, painting, and dance, and music were a given. They belonged to me as well any other congressman or cuff, and they had nothing to do with wanting to be successful. I suffered from the delusion that I was already successful. Wasn’t I loafing on a sofa with tears streaming down my face because I had heard Elgar’s cello concerto for the first time? Wasn’t that the best sort of success–the success of transport? Didn’t I contain such depths, such sensitivity, such grace? Art and success were not even linked in my mind, and having a “career” in the arts seemed so distant from being an artist that I hardly connected them. You could work in a grocery store all your life and play Casale’s Cello Suites, couldn’t you. Why not?

I was not a utilitarian. Art was beyond both failure and success. So, I saw it in a very Russian way I suppose. Even though I am a factory worker, the son of a factory worker, there is a great deal of hothouse flower in me. My mother and father let me be languid in the parlor, listening to Chopin Nocturnes played by Dinu Lipatti while the dust motes settled on all their glass swans and beat up furniture. A part of me was an aesthete. It is the aesthete in me that hates publication and literary business talks. They are vulgar. They are of the factory–filled with purposeful, pragmatic people who maybe are more determined than talented. The fact that the determined beat out the talented appalls me. I forget that professionalism and careerism is also a talent: the talent for doing everything the right way. It is not Proust hanging out in a parlor. It is Zadie Smith going to Harvard and then hanging out in a parlor where she may not have been welcomed sixty years ago. I forget that shrewdness and stealth are virtues. I am limited as all people are by my particular brand of snobbery.

I didn’t go to Harvard. I did however, hang out in parlor with people who went to Harvard,sand, since I was no threat to them, we had a jolly time. The grad students were right to ask me only as a last ditch alternative. I’m a mess when it comes to being a careerist.They are professionals and their professors are professionals. I am a professional only in so far as I know a lot about poetry–its technical aspects, its history. I also know music, and painting. If I had been a woman inthe 19th century, I would have made some rich man a good wife. I’m a generalist. When it comes to publications, I fell into that, and , I am woefully ignorant. I believe most poems and stories are published because they fit a niche or fulfill the requirements of a code language for what is, at the moment, considered “quality work.” This code is hardly ever accurate as per art. It is highly accurate as per prevailing tastes.. Publication is an accurate measure of a standard mold set–not art. Factor X–that which makes living art–is the rare accidental catch in the net of publication. Oh see that glistening fish? It has beautiful scales and great fighting ability. We caught that without intending to. (no one admits that). Art is an accident that happens when one is allowed to loaf at ease and read Keats, and write many bad poems–without pressure. How can I tell the grad students that? They have to publish And for whom? Increasingly, programs are becoming 20 adjuncts and a celebrity hire. Increasingly, all the top magazines run contests, and winning a contest becomes everything. The parlor has become a factory. Tolstoy would be appalled. AWP would make him puke. It makes me puke, but I went this year. I was terrible at it, and didn’t schmooze. I may be known for my mouth but I am actually shy and terrible at chitchat. This is one thing I know: while you can’t ignore the business, but you die if you forget the parlor. Unfortunately, I think most people want to be comfortably dead instead of uncomfortably alive. Even I am attracted to it.. The parlor is not the given. You can’t take grad school or time spent with fellow artists for granted. How much time do you spend with friends talking about books or painting or music when you don’t have to? It’s an important question. Constructive sloth is vital. Everyone I know who is truly successful , including former students, knew how to waste time. How do you waste your time? When you aren’t being busy, or purposeful or submitting work, what do you do? It may seem like a stupid question, but I know what I do: I write a poem or play the piano, or listen to someone play, I read poems. I write essays on Facebook that will never be read by a larger audience. I do a lot of things for nothing. What do you do for nothing?That is a question for the soul. I am worried about a country in which no one does anything for nothing (instead they do it for slave wages and call it a career) I am worried for a country where a Reggie who loves free jazz just for the hell of it is no longer possible. He was our true and intelligent audience, but we ignored him. He didn’t count. How do you know at age 20 or 30 or 40 who doesn’t count? Who taught you such stupidity?You write only for other writers?. I am worried about a country in which everyone is a careerist. I am concerned about what I see as a sort of professional version of sociopathy. But I am also a working stiff, and I understand you need a job. Art is tied to economics like everything else. To actually starve is stupid, but to believe too much in being successful is also stupid. Believe in meaningful work and look for it–both from yourself and from others, and be willing to be shocked when it comes from an unlikely place.

Other than that, remember you are going to die, no matter how many awards you win, and you will spend large parts of your life forgetting that. Careerism is only evil if it makes you forget first and last things, for art comes from the contemplation of first and last things–lasting art. Not that a careerist believes in lasting art. A careerist believes in the moment and in a future he or she can control. He or she believes in craft talks and seminars. I am still in the parlor on the verge of tears because I am hearing Schubert’s Lieder. It is hard to hear Schubert when you are bragging about your latest publication. This is not because I am a better person. It is because I am wilfully ignorant and stupid.It is because I was raised to constructive sloth, and vital undirected transports of the spirit. I am porbably bi-polar.My parents were probably bi-polar. I probably have a brain that sees significance in the weirdest places. I also spent 21 years in a factory. I know what a factory is. A university is often a factory. Publication is often a factory. No one wants that–not even the careerists, but shit happens. I am reaching an age where I want to return to the parlor. My students are too young to stay there. They think there are better places to be (and they are probably right), or they want to be in more exclusive parlors watching famous people chew overpriced food… When you are old, you will long to have a decent conversation with someone–something beyond the business. Only those who know how to waste time will waste time on you. At least I hope so. I don’t like to go to author’s dinners because the conversation is always tepid and boring. That’s how professionals talk. They keep the good stuff for the books.

I am dying for a good conversation and I won’t get one here. In the information age, talk is cheap unless its info. I am not an A student type. No one ever clapped because I jumped through a hoop. No one ever fed me a fish. “Weil, you dumb ass, I told you to sharpen all the drills to a 135.” I have lived there all my life and still do. A day after my surgery, no one at the university asked me how I was doing. They asked if I’d finished judging the fiction contest no one else wanted to judge. It hurt, but so fucking what? Suck it up and get back to your machine.

Poems are “instruments for thinking” (Allen Grossman). The object of a poet’s thought, however, is often unstated–especially in lyric poetry. Lyric poetry never speaks to an audience, and so–as it is when we are alone–the speaker does not feel compelled to explicitly state the object of thought but only the thoughts themselves. In this review, I want to try and discern these objects of thought in the works of two poets whose work seem directed at resolving particularly spiritual problems.

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diatomhero: religious poems

The primary question about Lisa A Flowers’ work is this: What spiritual universe does her poetry inhabit? What are its rules and how do those govern the assumptions and hence possibilities/ambitions of her work?

It seems to be a world in which incarnation is the rule, and yet there is also a kind of Heaven and Hell–locations that suggest some kind of finality. The figure of Justice speaks in one poem:

“…the Lord just takes all those who have died that day and consumes them.

The good ones are absorbed into His system,

And the bad ones pass right through it

And drop out into Hell,

Which is situated conveniently beneath Him as a toilet.

Some think they’re getting away because they’ve existed

Inside the camera of the body for so long.”

Heaven, here, I can understand as the escape of Nirvana, but not Hell–unless Hell is the earth, which I suspect is the case. What is the nature of this incarnation then? The images of the poems are constantly morphing, yet the syntax suggests stasis: it’s possible to go many lines without encountering an independent clause. Even flesh itself undergoes a kind of reincarnation.

But more importantly, I suspect that reincarnation is itself a kind of metaphor for dualism: mind-body, but also the dualism of one’s inner spiritual conflict. Reincarnation seems to be an image of the trauma of thwarted spiritual aspirations. The most compelling image of this metaphor is the “Rorschach” (from a poem of that title):

I was two places at once:

One side of my body bleeding indistinguishably into

Oneness, like an inkblot,

The other sketching the actual picture,

Past and present lives

Back to back, in a Star Wars trash compactor.

After awhile I opened my napkin and recognized myselves:

Two Versailles rivals turning fans to each other’s disdain,

A flattened hydra peeling itself off a window,

“Beast turning human,” like Nora Flood’s lover.

I think trauma is the right word. Reincarnation, though natural, seems to be a constant tearing, disorientation–a surprisingly appropriate metaphor for the self of modern poetics.

This raises some more questions for me about Lisa’s work: What is the relationship between trauma and time, between trauma and eternity? If trauma can stretch across eternity, then it is a fundamental aspect of the self. It seems to me that this is the question Flowers’ writing attempts to answer; it is this conflict that she aspires to resolve.

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Digressions on God

The title of Emily’s chapbook is utterly perfect for these poems. “Digression” is almost a sustained method. One line in particular captures this movement:

Today I will have a conference with God,

And then I will boil a potato.

Many (not all) of the poems begin in an abstract thought on God or theology and eventually unwinds into an indiscernible particularity of Vogel’s everyday life. For instance, Vogel often addresses a “you” without any qualification–a figure made poetically inscrutable by the particularity of reference.

As readers, we are quite used to the opposite model–the upward aim–its firm entrenchment in Romantic poetry, especially. Vogel’s poetry is deliberately “downward aimed”; in this sense, the chapbook’s dedication–”In honor of the Holy Spirit”–is entirely appropriate as the Holy Spirit is God’s outpouring upon the world. This chapbook is not about man’s ascent to God, but God’s descent upon, His digression on man.

So what are the spiritual aspirations of Vogel’s poems? I think Vogel states it fairly directly in her poem “Exile” when she says

One must find the most reasonable solution

to the problem of despair.

One must come to some conclusion about God

without upsetting

the order of ordinary miracles.

What is the spiritual universe of Vogel? In her poems, this problem of despair is the abstract, where the idea of good can overwhelm the good, yet it is enmeshed and arises in daily-ness:

I am not, like a Poet, walking alone on the street,

reovering lost memories in the stench

of fih markets, finding hidden meaning

in a city train.

I am consoling your busted heart

in a desperate attempt to dispel the terrible Pride

which plagues my spirit. I am mad

with the desire to go mad with desire.

Yet final line contains a conundrum, and I believe it is aspiration of these poems to resolve this conundrum: “desire” is used in both its senses here–both abstract (“the desire to go mad”) and particular (“with desire” for the particular “you”). Vogel attempts to rectify both these senses of language by means of her digressions.