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american poet

Whether as a gadfly to the bigger kids in communist Romania or as a teenager in Chicago, part of me always wanted to be hip, but another part always knew that it was too much work.

What does it mean to be hip? It means to be urban, wired, social, to occupy the latest spaces, to perform the most contemporary habits according to a precise code. If being hip means being urban, multinational, vanguard, does being unhip end up meaning that one has to be rural, nationalistic, or even parochial?

Speaking about downtown Los Angeles on BBC2 in the early 1990s, Dr. Edward Soja mentions how postmodern architecture can manifest as the feeling of de-centeredness quickly followed by a desire to submit to authority, any authority. How does this desire to find a center relate to the desire to lose a center? More precisely, as a first-generation immigrant American poet like myself who is interested in finding his place: how do the hardships of feeling lost play out in contemporary American poetry?

Recently, Swedish-American poet Johannes Goransson has suggested a link between the hipster and an excessive aesthetic on his popular blog called Montevidayo: “The hipster lets the art become excessive, lets art become “graffitiesque” (ie when art takes over the space of the everyday).” Perhaps hipster poets like Goransson, Ariana Reines, Sean Kilpatrick, and others, as practitioners of excessive aesthetics, offer useful responses to the moral-relativism articulated by postmodern urban spaces. Perhaps art is still that thing that helps us conceive of getting lost as an adventure.

What does it mean to take seriously the central lesson of the European avant-garde, via Tristan Tzara, that life is art? How can contemporary American hipster poets’ various understandings of excess help us understand the terrifying idea that life is an adventure and not a time-keeping instrument? What kind of self-expression or Romanticism is still possible after the death of the center?

Describing herself (and literature as such … since biography is written and, as well, it writes the self she describes), Ariana Reines writes in Coeur de Lion:

I don’t mean some internet-ready
self-reflexivity, self-irony, whatever
people call it, as if a self were so fixed
just ironizing “it” could constitute
a surge of consciousness. (7)

And here she is holding pop culture at a properly disdainful and therefore hip distance:

Apocalypto is a awesome title, we agree.
And Mel Gibson is like some kind of grotesque rendition
Of a stupid, stupid Georges Bataille
But his bloodlust, in its excess, is dull.
Its voracity runs too headlong
Into the carnage, or something, it doesn’t
Exploit the eros of violent possibility enough. (12)

Reflecting on the rather self-obsessed and confessional mode of the book, the same speaker writes:

When do you
decide you’re talking to
Literature too? It’s hard
To separate a body from
The words it lets fall.
And then the difference
Between what’s written
And what seems, outside
Of writing, almost just to be.
Writing has to do with
Time. It comes very close
After. Or
It can. This is very
Close after.
So close that it could
Scare me. I hope it
Will. I really hope it will. (50)

In his gothic and Google-age-surrealist book Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate, Johannes Goransson writes: “His dingle-dangle is a strange fruit. Get out of here if you don’t know how to raise a child, how to save a child, from this disease. It’s a disease of language. I suspect I have it already. Shit.” (6)

In 1922, Tzara said: “Dada is useless, like everything else in life … Dada is a virgin microbe which penetrates with the insistence of air into all those spaces that reason has failed to fill with words and conventions.”

Sean Kilpatrick’s sexual and aggressive book called fuckscapes offers a series of horrific images in a variety of textual shapes cutting up pith and anger and idiom and confession all with a syntax that implicates the reader in this apocalyptic mess. He writes:

Neat breaks of ammo stung the weather.
They played my father’s rigor mortis over the loudspeaker.
Doctors with poor eyesight wearing rubber boots
Through his carrion, with southern accents in his carrion,
On lunch break, the color of lotion, his carrion in tents,
Said, “toothbrush removes father.” They
Said, “he served us well, your daddy pile
Of Frogger super-genes gone splat. (24)

Americans like their personal space and the Internet would seem to offer the ultimate in disembodied connectedness with its main utopian offering of a self that promises to be everywhere, a ubiquitous self. However, because we conceive of the Internet as a kind of space-space continuum that is out of time, it performs Dr. Soja’s “spatial turn” in the Humanities as a modal default. Because of this aesthetic or modal default as a spatial trope, an uncensored Internet is the most powerful instrument in the Democracy 2.0 movement.

How does space relate to the cool poets? Contemporary American hipster poets comprise a network of agglomeration in urban centers and as a causal consequence of this proximity to one another they create the necessary buzz for the literary mutations we come to recognize as progress. Sure, progress is a myth in the service of colonial projects but it is also the way each generation understands the geography of the past.

If the hipster makes art that is everywhere, does the marginalized maker make art that is nowhere? If we are the ones who construct space in poems and in burnt out downtown districts, what is the role of the oligarch who sponsors building projects? When a city generates excess, this garbage or grotesque excess offers once again the primary lesson of the European avant-garde: life is art. Consider the terrain of mortality; consider performing life as a fellow traveler to death. After all: nihilism shows us the amorality of fashion, but only if that amorality is seen from a critical distance rather than just lived. How, then, do we exploit the eros of violent possibility so we may live our art to the fullest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

I was looking at an old copy of the Black Swan Review, which I founded and published many years ago (1989), and came across a poem by the Cuban American poet/novelist, Pablo Medina. It’s short, written a bit in one of the three types of lyricism that were prevalent back then (call it minimalist deep imagism). In deep imagism, you expect certain tag words such as wind, dark, bones, shadow, stones, sky, etc. This is also true of Spanish surrealism, a form of surrealism as influential on deep imagists (and later, Larry Levis) as French surrealism and dada are on the New York school.

At any rate, in this poem, we have wind, darkness, snow, bones, shadow…pretty much all the basic ingredients for minimalist deep imagism ( or Spanish surreal lyricism) with the exception of angels, ashes, and blood. Let’s have a look-see:

Cadwalader Park, Late Fall
Pablo Medina

The strollers hunch
against the wind, call to their children
from lengthening the shadows.

The parents turn to each other.
More lines in the face,
more of the tinge of age.

When the man wants a kiss
his eyes open to his mate’s bones,
slow of speech, eyebrows frail as horizons.

The harvest is done.
The year darkens into snow.

It’s sort of a moody haiku on steroids. It uses some of the mechanisms of haiku: reference to the seasons, above all, short, paratactic sentences. It is neatly packaged in a series of tercet, concluded with a couplet. The trajectory of the poem goes from a long shot of strollers in a park, to a close up of lined faces tinged with age, and then some odd tercet in which a man eye’s open to his mate’s bones, and someone (the mate, or the man, or the bones) is “slow of speech, with eyebrows frail as horizons. It is scene painting, and mood painting. Now here’s the sampling game. First, make a poem in which you use Medina’s three tercet and a concluding couplet structure, but mess with his words, and make the sentences a series of directives, with a concluding couplet of questions:

Hunch against the wind.
Call to the shadows
of lengthening children.

See how they grow
tinged with age in the
day’s last light.

Know they are the bones
of a kiss. Open them slowly,
weather them frail.

Are they the horizons of your eye brows?
Are they the year darkening into snow?

This ransacking is far more surreal. Instead of the shadows lengthening, the children lengthen. To call children the “bones of a kiss” is not so inaccurate if you reduce their life to bones, and the sex that leads to their life to a kiss. In point of fact, it’s far more original—kind of resembles Wordsworth’s contention that “the son is father to the man.” The poem is as gloomy as Medina’s, but it does not so much paint a scene as turn Cadwalader park, late fall into a strange sort of surrealist hymn to mortality, to transience, a theme latent in the initial poem. Here, the children become the main focus. The voice of the poem is issuing orders: Hunch, call, see, know.

I have not used a single line of Pablo’s poem. I have used words, images, re-constructed them. I could call the poem, “A Directive.” Medina never said the children were the bones of a kiss. He never said they were the year darkening into snow. We took the structure, and, in a sense, the mood painted by minimalist words. We took the parataxis, and made it more pronounced, but this is a wholly distinct poem. The lineation is far less regular, with the couplets being far longer lines.

Assignment: Find a poem and do the same. Cop its structure, and even some of its key words, but change the type of sentences, and fool with the images. Good luck.