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Many young poets can not accept that telling a story, or relating some sort of narrative arc is conducive to the highest aims of poetry. Of course this is a confusion between story telling and narrative. They are not the same. Narrative is the pulse and rhythm of being. Whitman is an intensely narrative poet, as is Emily Dickinson. Stories stay in touch with this pulse of being in the most obvious ways. The great triumph of Chekhov is that he muted the obviousness of story, blurred the distinctions between plot and character, and took prose into territories of consciousness previously known only to the most subjective and simple of lyrical poems. Story may be destroyed, but never narrative. If I write

Oy vey! The sun is batting its eye lashes
and I am a tired tree

I am, for all my pretensions to surrealism, still in the arms of narrative. The sun is doing something (batting its eye lashes)i This is the action at the scene. Oy vey is an ejaculation that means, roughly: “Oh brother,” or “For crying out loud,” or “Oh my God” so it implies an attitude. If I say I am a tired tree, then I am implying a state of being, and the reader will connect the dots. The batting of eye lashes is an age old signifier of vanity or flirting. I may not follow this line consciously, but it is there. So lets continue:

Oy vey! The sun is batting its eye lashes
and I am a tired tree.
Strange omens creep forth from Canada.
The sky is dressed in drag.
How shall I desist from wandering the earth
in search of pomegranates?
Death to stars and cardboard!
Death to the wan smile of the lost.
Forgive me my trespasses.
I am a tired tree
half in love with sudden lightning
and the vagrant grin of years.

There is no story told here, but there is narrative arc. The poem might seem nonsensical, especially if you insist on logical exposition or a concrete point (which is journalism and information–not narrative). If you meet the poem on its own terms line for line, you may notice a strange lament. The tree is tired. It is half in love with lightning (death wish) and the vagrant grin of years. The voice is vehement in what it wants to die: stars, cardboard, the wan smile of the lost. This is an arbitrary list, but have you ever listened to a cranky sick person complain:? To quote my Aunt Mary two weeks before she died: “No soup! The hell with soup and styrofoam. Where is my bone china? You’re killing me!”

The problem students have with narrative is its mundanity. It is not the narrative, but the absence of verbal surprise they are missing. Verbal surprise is always overrated by young poets. They mistake confusion and flash for lyricism. Lyricism breaks forth when the narrative arc, the interior laws organic to the poem are compelled, even forced to sing and this singing is so close to insanity or sheer ecstasy as to risk the loss of sense. Take this snippet from Hart Crane that baffles many a sensible soul:

The mustard scansions of the eyes.

It is, indeed, a strange phrase, but let’s consider (beyond Cleanth Brooks) where Hart Crane lived. He lived in the same apartment that had been occupied by the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge. He knew scansions (bridge abutments) like no one else. They could have been painted a mustard brown or yellow–in keeping with hazel eyes. When I first read this line I was in awe of his accuracy, a precision so intense it blighted the sense and construct of the actual thing described. Of course I was reading my own life into the poem. I once loved a girl who stood at dusk under the El, and she had yellow or mustard specks in her eyes, and the scansions were reflected in her irises. When I read this line, I thought Hart Crane had hovered like a ghost over my experience. I was reading into the poem which leads me to another point: even if you provide no story or narrative, the reader will provide one, and if not, then the reader is immured in a construct of non-narrative so pure as to be pissant.

John Ashbery, the darling of many poets opposed to story telling and narrative, is an intensely narrative poet. His narratives shift from line to line, moment to moment, disappearing and dissolving in the current of the poem. He is the master of the story that “Almost” happens. He makes a gesture towards story and betrays it, but he does not betray narrative.

Many poets try to escape narrative by destroying syntax. Lets try it:

Orion of graves
graves of the discontent
watermelons in the breeze
breeze absolving the moon
and the hermit
and the celebrity
and the soul survivor of the war
and the judiciary
and the past-enormous–lopsided tits
Pray! Pray for the thigh I am licking.
Pray for Betty Crocker!
And the and and the and and the and
loose cowboys
suspended adorations.

OK, only a couple of sentences. Why pray for Betty Crocker? Yet the poem obeys its own immutable laws of disconnection. That in itself is a ceremony and a narrative. ask: How do we make narrative beyond mere story telling? I tell you, no good story obeys story telling. It obeys narrative–the arc of being.

I received a very important lesson from my father. We were driving around in the part of New Jersey he grew up in–a once rural area called Chester that was now suburban. He was sad because the street he had lived on so many years before was much smaller in reality than in memory and he mistook it for a driveway. We stopped by a field of sunflowers. He was staring at the nodding heads of these enormous flowers, and I was throwing pebbles at a stop sign. Two people joined us. One had a camera. Out of the head of the sunflower, exploding from the head, came a bird that had the same color scheme as the sun flower: bright yellow, with black markings. It made an undulating flight over the road into a thicket of trees. “Sun sparrow.” My dad said. “You mean Eastern gold finch” the lady with the camera interjected. “No lady, I mean sun sparrow. That’s what we called them.” My dad then provided the scientific name for the bird, and said: “Come on kid let’s get out of here. The smell of experts makes me sick.”

I had three names now for a bird I didn’t know. I don’t remember the scientific name, but I remembered sun sparrow, and Eastern Gold finch. I found out it was the state bird of New Jersey. You would think the state bird would be all over the place, but we lived in the urban area of Jersey–what some have called the armpit of the universe: Elizabeth. In Elizabeth, starlings and Eurasian tree sparrows comprise the niche Eastern Gold finches or sun sparrows might otherwise fill.

It was ten years before I saw another–the day after my father died. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be away from my family, so I took a walk along deserted railroad tracks, where there were thickets and weeds. I looked up from my shoes, and there was my dad’s “Sun sparrow” perched on a slender stalk of Queen Anne’s lace. It made me cry. I got down on me knees, and held my stomach. It was as if I had been shot–the arrow of love, of memory, of how this accident could shake me to my core. I said “sun sparrow” out loud, and the bird undulated away from me into a dense tangle of brush. I thought about the smell of experts making him sick. As a teenager I had often thought my father an idiot. I now understood how much of an idiot I was.

Names have power, especially when they are linked to memory and emotion, when they act as a part for some vital whole. They stand in for existence. All names are misnomers. Exactitude is the myth we concoct all too often to exclude, to prove we are experts, to prove we own something that can never truly be owned. Used well, names allow us to enter, to understand, to raise our sense of wonder and awe ever higher. Used badly, they become the stink of experts, the rank odor of snobbery and exclusion.

I tell my students that education can do the work of evil: it can make a bunch of aleatory systems with PHDs think they have a right to be superior to the Rocky Weils of this world. They can make a son misunderstand the wisdom of his own father. They stink of torture and snobbery, they are rank with the odor of exclusion and bias, and we call this “truth” or “Dogma” or “terminology.” If we are not careful, the knowing of names can be substituted for wisdom. They become a false wisdom. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me….” sure. Names kill. Names distance us from the stupidity of our actions. When we can call people collateral damage, we no longer have to confront them as a child with a soccer ball, who like your child, wanted to play, who, unlike your child, stepped on a mine and was blown into a thousand pieces.

As a teacher, I worry about power more than anything else. If I arm a student with names and terms, and so called knowledge, and forget that wisdom is not a slave to any of these tricks, I may be doing great harm. I may be perpetuating the very snobbery that allows professors at cocktail parties to call my father, who I loved, “White trash.” I may be allowing the student to think he or she is better than someone else when the truth is, at ground zero, we are all the bitter comedy of aleatory systems: we eat, we shit, we die. Some of us, because of our names, our use of names, our semiotics can eat and shit and die in the better places. My dad had a saying that summed up our human lust for status very nicely: “If life were nothing but a bowl of shit, there would be a whole group of people feeling superior because they lived in the corn section, and a whole other group doing whatever they could to get to the corn section, and then there’d be a group of people feeling lousy because they lived near the peppers.” It’s disgusting, but true.

The beginning of wisdom is the knowledge of ground zero: What is the ground of my being? If I think it is all aleatory, then it is hard for me to feel better or worse than others. If I think it is God and that I am saved, then I can circumvent the equality of the aleatory, and make distinctions. If I don’t believe in God, this does not save me from distinction because I will believe in things: having certain things, a certain reputation, a certain status will become my God. I will serve it–often bitterly. I will obey my lust to mean, even when, at my core, I feel meaningless. If I feel meaningless, I will find a group who feels the same way, and look with scorn at those who believe they are meaningful.

Equality does not flourish except in theory. In the day to day and the minute to minute, we are reading signs, and being read by signs and making distinctions between signs, unaware that, we, ourselves, are a sign. We are signs reading signs, and almost all of it is inexact–a measure, not a truth. Read a sign wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Be read wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Call an Eastern Gold finch a sun sparrow, and you are likely to get corrected by some lady with a camera. The lady was correct, but she showed little wisdom correcting a father who was sharing a moment and memory with his son. Some forms of incorrectness have greater depth than the correct. Science can use the exact, but poetry, especially great poetry can make of imperfections the kingdom and mercy of heaven. It can also get people killed. To die for an idea, or because you are an idea, or because you get caught in a certain cluster of ideas is the meaning of both war and of a university education. Ideas and names kill. We should never forget this. They also help us to live. We should not forget this, either.

So with this in mind, arm yourself with literary terms. Used well, used in order to enter or understand a text, these terms may provide you with some deeper sense of joy or wonder, or knowledge. Used badly, they might allow you to look smart and superior at some boring party. It’s up to you.