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chain gangs

I grew up in a neighborhood where most of the parents worked in factories or trades. The closest anyone came to a professional occupation was Ann Boyle next door who worked as an executive secretary for Bell telephone and, through the great benefits of that monopoly, was able to retire at age 55. Anne never married, but she had companions and an ample glass of scotch at the ready on the front porch. She lived with her mother and brother, did not have to pay rent, and became rich through stocks. She was my first “student” in so far as I helped her write papers when she decided to return to school and procure a college degree. I can still remember getting slowly sloshed on scotch while helping her structure a ten page paper on Martin Luther King.

Anyway, professionalism which I see as a way of life, almost a religion, never laid a glove on me. Neighborhood aesthetics, especially in that industrial/post-industrial world, were very different. Springsteen, writing of Jungle land, sang: “and the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all/they just stand back and let it all be.” This ain’t exactly true. It is true they don’t write it down, but the poets in “jungle land” are like signifying monkey, or the Irish barroom philosopher, or the folk story teller. They talk shit. They keep things lively on the corner. They are known for being “characters.” They often survived the factories and , earlier, the chain gangs, by being the tricksters–the comics, and poets, and, occasionally, the scapegoats, of the neighborhood. I was one of these people. I was the guy who told whacky stories on the front porches, or on car hoods, or in back yards on my block. I was known for being crazy. I was known for being smart. One of my many knick names was “Wild man Weil.” Another was “Mr. Encyclopedia” A third, due to my always mildly disheveled appearance, was “Scurvy Joe.” I was known as someone who could talk shit. I also played songs and wrote my own. When I was 18, on my birthday cake they wrote: “future songwriter.” This is how art is expressed where I came from:

1. You are one among others, and you assume the role of poet only by their general proclamation–not by awards, not by standards, not by credentials, but by popular acclamation from the people around you.
2. This does not give you special privileges. You serve a valuable role, but, sometimes, you are the big mouth who gets clobbered, or the nut job who is singled out and mocked. This is the double face of the trickster–half god, half animal, and very rarely allowed to be fully human. You are coyote, signifying monkey, the prophets who says the truth, even at the wrong time, the one who does not “fit” perfectly.

You are rewarded in the following ways:

1. People will keep you around even when you are not very good at your job, or very strong, or even when you are a bit of a scoundrel. They will keep you around because you provide a cathartic safety valve to blow off the steam for their frustrations, their sufferings, and their sense of drudgery. You make life a little more than it is in opposition to those forces which make life far less than what it should be.
2. You are holy. You are marked with a sign. You are holy in the sense that you are ground set apart–again, not by “achievements” (the way of the professional and the middle class) but by your role in the life of your community. The hero leaves the village to bring back fire. Unlike the hero, the neighborhood poet never leaves. You are the trespass that stays behind, that affirms but also confronts the community by being an “affront,” a difference within it, an aporia within it. To an industrial and post-industrial rust belt city, this character is on every loading dock, in every barroom, on the street corner. He or she keeps things lively and also keeps things real, and this bears absolutely no relationship to the tenets of professional art or poetry–and that includes slam. Slam will never take the place of the trickster because it has already become too coded, too fixed, and too much a part of the professional commodity machine. It is as immured in the slick and the packaged as academic work. It will never speak for those who have no real voice. It will never be the barbaric yawp. It has destroyed spoken word which had such promise, but all that has promise is constantly destroyed that it might be born again.

And so, my final, and truest distinction between the aesthetics of neighborhood and those of the professional: the professional is incapable of sacrifice in the sense of dying and rising from the dead. He does not share in mythos. His sense of success is not about glory after death; it is also not about being “present” to his community. It is about prosperity and achievement now. All is meant to be measured towards a sort of prosperity. The “Event” of death, and, more so, the event of resurrection are to be avoided at all costs. These are tacky to the professional. The professional is post-mythos, post-seasonal. It can never die and it can never be re-born. It is established. It has a process. That process recognizes “excellence” and achievement in an utterly different way. There are gatekeepers and they decide who is and who is not “good enough.” They act as a priesthood. They are the intermediaries between the professional poet and his
professional audience–most of whom, if not all of whom are fellow practitioners. There is no life here, but there is process. Occasionally, this process takes on the intimacy of the neighborhood and a certain true communitas is possible. This is rare. It is even frowned upon. To “profess” in the ancient sense was to be one who was paid for his rhetoric–his professing. He evolved from the neighborhood poet and rhetorician, but, with the rise of printing, rhetoric and form were downplayed and speechifying became frowned upon.

I am a speechifying, rhetorical, neighborhood poet. I am not a professional. Professionalism seems morally wrong to me–spiritually sinful, not because I think professionals are wrong, or sinful, but because I believe I was called to bear witness to something other than professionalism. This witness may now be only to some extinct community of factory workers and the children of factory workers, but I don’t think so. I believe I served this function for my students. I also served it for my factory workers. I cannot serve this function in the realm of professional poetry because it is exactly this function they detest. Professionalism is based on a standard, on a decorum, on a series of measures. It is based on “Schools” and patterns of networking and schmoozing. It is Ivan Ilyich over and over again. It is making me sick. It is killing my soul. I am very grateful for a job. I am grateful to support myself, but I wish it did not come at the price of being who I am. It is very different than the raucous form of being that made me love poetry. I never confined poetry to poems. Poesis exists in how you talk, how you move, what you say when you teach. My whole being was poesis, but in both the professional academic realm, and the faux- populist realm of slam, I am not allowed to exist. In these realms, the
poets have no season, no earth, no wind, no element. When these things appear, and threaten to make a perhaps event (in the sense Derrida used “perhaps” and “event”) this perhaps and this event are immediately framed in such a way as to convert them to the purpose and use of the very professionalism to which they attempted to act as exception.

Post-industrial poesis, neighborhood aesthetics

Poetry is real value labor. It does not see itself as set apart from the life and work of the community from which it arises. The poet has other jobs, most of which he usually performs indifferently because his or her true job is to express and bear witness to the community in which he or she suffers and lives.

This real value labor does not accept perceived value aesthetics. There are no gate keepers deciding who and who is not worthwhile. The poet of the neighborhood rises from the open reading. If he or she is singled out, he or she is singled out not by experts, but by those among whom they have lived. It is a word of mouth kind of thing.. It is what is sought in the midst of seasons and in the weather and the truly local–not by national presses, or awards, or credentials, but by a local sense of that poet’s inner necessity. That poet was created by his or her community. He or she can only be destroyed by that community, and he or she can only live if he or she remains in contact with the principle of that locality, that membrane of being.. This locality is rooted in purpose–in, as I said, real value labor. As such it is far more malleable, complex, and shifting than the typical definitions of poetry. It may be the right word at the right time in a crisis. It may be the perfectly apt joke, the comeback, the story told at the right time to the right person. Unlike poetry proper, it is far more situational. It fits the occasion of its utterance, but remains pure in a sense by “talking shit”–talking and speechifying, and inventing verbal worlds for the sheer hell of it, beyond the immediate purpose. It is born of purpose, but deviant from purpose in so far as it seeks life, joy, energy beyond the merely functional. It tends to be flamboyant and hyperbolic rather than understated. It tends to be rhetorical and mythic rather than factually informative and understated. It tends toward the ecstatic, the brutal, the ferocious, the beautiful, the sentimental. It is more invested in brio than in nuance. It does not trust the flawless because its chief moral purpose is to expose the falsely perfect.

This is the closest I can come to explaining the world I grew up in. I do not flourish on the professional poetry scene.. I can’t get by on my “talk” because only Irishmen from Ireland are allowed by professionals to get away with that, and even then, the Irish poets they admire are most often somber. What can I say? I feel lost. To exist in the kudos section of the universe is, for me, a construct of hell. There are no street corners, no barber shops, no factories, no true places to bear witness. The professional has triumphed. God fucking help us.

In part one, I tried to enforce the idea that folk art is not necessarily superior to commodified art, and most art that we know and is brought to public consciousness, and endures is a combination, a dance so to speak between the genuine and the packaged, You have to cut the hog up to transport it, and a cut up hog can never be a free ranging pig, but it can give you the full flavor of what people in those parts love and have grown up on concerning the pig that ranged. You need to package the genuine in order to carry it to a new audience. One could make a case that the entire folk music scene from which Dylan, country rock, and long, often self indulgent singer-song writer songs emerged was far more in the category of commodity than folk–even as sacred a character as Woody Guthrie. A true folk artist wouldn’t worry about the purity of what he was doing, and if he can make good money for the people back home, and not be broke, he or she is going to let them cut up the hog–but only so far, and he is going to lament, sooner or later that, in cutting up the hog, they forgot the beauty and intelligence of the pig, and he may even be horrified at what they’ve done to his hog. This is why we have counter movements, and nothing is ever fully agreed upon.

Now the word academic can be taken in many ways. We could look at the glorious work Alan Lomax did, his scholarship in recording field hollers, convict songs, Appalachian music as well as Delta Blues. Instead of cutting up the hog, he did what a good scholar does: attempted to transport it whole, and preserve it so that it might be seen in its fullness and purity. This is scholarship. This is the good thing about Academic: it is work heavy, arduous, develops methods of qualification and research that tries to keep the hog in its full glory. Such scholarship is often brave, even fearless. often, no one understands or sees the value in some Northern Yankee running around the fields, and through the chain gangs in search of a song. No one understands why a scholar might spend thirty years codifying all the variants in the different versions of a single folk song sung mainly by half senile old ladies on their porches. The scholar, in this sense, is no less heroic than Beowulf.. He or she is going up against the dragon of half truths, and full out lies, and rumor, and finding the gem of what is complicated, and incremental and pain staking. This has none of the romance of the philosopher or theorist, none of the sweep. It is a daily, small, relentless contact with what can be recorded, verified, and put towards a body of research. All that said, the scholar works from the myth of purity, so that, for all his or her brave work, the best he or she can produce is a more accurate, far more exacting, far more useful falsehood–a falsehood that is then qualified, and corrected by equally brave and painstaking scholars, all of whom fine tune, and take a tooth brush to a thousand mile desert and start brushing.

God Bless them. For me, there is little as exciting in this life as a conversation with someone who has spent a life time knowing one small thing so well that it has become a world unto itself. Only trouble is, most scholars are terrified to expound and generalize since this is the work of theorists. I would rather talk to a good scholar who was willing to talk, than to a theorist who never fucking shuts up, but good scholars are often bad talkers, and they can be concrete at such a microscopic level that only another scholar knows what the hell they are talking about. I once spent three hours with an expert on 18 century prosody. It was heaven because I knew just enough to understand what he was discoursing on, but this is all too rare. Most of the time a good scholar is a bad theorist–not always, but often, and most theorists, rely on scholars because they aren’t exactly drudge workers. The worst nightmare for both theorists and scholars goes something like this: the scholar has spend 2o years studying the anatomy of a single kind of dinosaur. His research makes a big stir in the community of scholars. It is published in the best journal. It comes out on Yahoo or in the papers as:
“Scientists discover: Dinosaurs had lips!”

This same nightmare haunts theorists who have their whole complex spiel reduced to a single sound byte, and the sound byte is what people remember This is the academic version of: “look what they’ve done to my hog!”

The culprit here is purity on both ends. Purity in terms of the full hog, the free ranging pig, and purity in terms of how the hog is cut up and packaged. I will note four kinds of purity, all of which get us into trouble:

1. The purity of what something “really is.”
2. The purity of essentializing beyond substance.
3. The purity of subtantializing to such a degree that the essential is lost (the part of the elephant that is mistaken for “elephant.”).
4. The purity of correctives (reform, qualification, exceptions).

These four kinds of purity get mixed, and very often reduced to either/or: for example, either slam or academic, either oral or written, either uttered or read, and on and on. Folk art as I define it is not very interested–ever–in purity–until it gets packaged and firmly packaged in the myth of “what it really is.” Then nothing is more purist or snobby. Now let me try to list some of the traits of what I perceive as academic poetry, but I will list them in their laudatory, neutral, and dyslogistic registers:

A. Laudatory: It is poetry which is complex, multi-faceted, employing Empson’s types of ambiguity, more prone to showing than telling, and above all adverse to simplistic “issues.” it is what Barthes called “writerly.” It is highly mannered whether it is going for the decorative or the Zen form of simplicity. It is deliberate and careful not to say anything in an overt or obvious way. When it does say something overt or obvious it is always toward the ironic or the Dadaist.
B. Neutral: it is nuanced, understated, and covert.
C. Dyslogistic: It says nothing in perfectly wrought and well crafted lines,, is interesting only to its fellow adherents, is too often a code language for the MFA program the poet attended, and is snobbish, boring, and not at all interested in any audience other than the major small press magazines. It hates the idea of being entertaining, or of engaging a general audience, and it deals with nothing important. It is apolitical, amoral, and purposely read in as boring and dead pan a way as possible.

I am giving the three registers to get at different attitudes in terms of what people mean by academic poetry. Because “academic” has somehow become a pejorative, Those whose attitude is laudatory or neutral will just consider this sort of page poetry not to be academic, but to be true poetry, and all else is suspect and false. Those whose attitude is in the dyslogistic register, will see all nuanced and complex poetry as false and bogus (I know academics who see it that way!)Sadly, these folks are just as snobbish in their way as the supposed “academic” poetry they attack. Nuff said at the moment.

Other useful and informed falsehoods:
A. The academic purposely reads his or her poetry in a neutral, fully reading voice so as never to be confused with performing the poem.
B. The academic plays it safe, never curses, never uses mixed registers of speech, seldom pulls his nomenclature and word choice from different sources. if he or she does use the language of the volk, it is always in a measured and consistent way. Academic poets never mix registers because then they lose their academic sound. They always place semiotics above the work.
C. Academic poetry is fed, promoted, and preserved by art funding and university support and, left to fend on an open market, it could never survive. It is on permanent life support.

I think I have noted some of the basic ideas of what constitutes academic poetry. If put into bi-polar relationship with slam, it is defined by what slam ain’t. My purpose here is to skip all this usual stuff, and re-define academic poetry as commodity art. as such, it can produce works of lasting merit, great poems–but within the limits of its packaging. Whenever that package is challenged and loosened, this usually indicates that some force outside the package has been working on it, and making it looser. it is being infected by the impurity of what I define as folk art, but by what might better be called the force of the vital and the necessary. Systems are not destroyed so much by being challenged (since usually, the challenge is internecine–a fight between those on the inside). Systems are destroyed by radical obedience. A system is a form of desire. Desire dies when it is fulfilled. A system that becomes too completely what it is, becomes fulfilled and dies the natural death of fruition. All systems, just as all life rises from decay, and death. The rank stink of fertilizer is upon every systematic root. This is true of academic poetry and it is true of slam. All evolves toward fulfillment (or reduction), and the system that becomes aware of itself as a form seeks not to die. In order not to die it must have an opposition, an enemy against by which its absolute fulfillment is thwarted and by which it defines itself. As long as we have a tug of war, neither end can die, but if that tug creates the intimacy of opposition (Holderin’s beautiful phrase) than each system can be perpetuated, usually under new names. Commodity art is all about names and semiotics. It must look, smell, taste, sound, and feel like academic poetry in order to be academic poetry–the slavery of the packaged.

Same for slam. When a new element is introduced, people force it into the mold. By doing so they can change the mold without suffering the crisis of difference. Before this happens, the one who introduces a new element will not be perceived as doing so. They will usually be disparaged or ignored by both ends of the tug of war–seen as an anomaly, neither fish nor fowl, just wrong. Those who consciously challenge a system will be understood within the terms of challenge. This is not true folk. Folk does not challenge. it obeys some inner necessity and, by doing so, remains vital, invisible. No sooner is it seen as this or that than it stops being vital and becomes packaged. We can only be willfully “open.” We are never so open except in theory. Human beings package things and put them into categories no matter how post-modernist they pretend to be. We seek the portable. Packaging makes a thing portable. So commodity is not always evil–just limiting by its very definition. I define both slam and academic poetry as commodity art. They are limiting. Neither can ever be the vital force because the vital goes unseen and unknown through the veins of the scene. It moves as the blood through all things that would not impede its flow. Spoken word was motley and large enough, and undefined enough to allow the force of the vital. Academia does not allow for a good, rhetorical, overt rabble rousing poem and this is regrettable. at the same time, I knew people on the spoken word scene who wrote poems like Creeley or Oppen, and read them as such. I knew people who did shtick. It was wide open. Being an old man I know nothing is allowed to remain wide open. it will bleed out and be butchered. Slam does not allow for Oppen or Creeley and this is unfortunate, Academic and slam poetry are not friends of the vital. The vital will come to these camps only by cross breeding, or by the restrictions being so perfectly adhered to that they die as a result of being fulfilled. Obedience, which unlike conformity, is ferocious and dynamic ,will always destroy what it obeys by fulfilling the law. The absolute perfect slam poem or academic poem belongs neither to slam or academic poetry: it belongs to the spoken or written word and allows both systems to die into freedom from the law. My qualms with both academic and slam are situational. Before such great and unseen moments of perfect obedience, both slam and academic poetry restrict and limit the life of the vital.

As a teacher, my job is to inform my students of as many schools as possible , both their virtues and limtations, so that, choosing what they must obey, they destroy all schools and allow the vital to flow. My motto was always: learn from all schools, be faithful to none. One is not faithful to the law. This is conformity. One fulfills the law. This is necessity or obedience. The inner necessity of art is never a system, cannot be confined to a system, for it is longing and desire itself. My definition of academic is that which would commodify, reduce, and package, and make its laws of letter superior to the laws of the spirit. Under this definition, slam is not the true opposition of the academic, but another form of the academic. Good work can come of it, but only when it is escapes its commodity, or fulfills it to the point of making change not only neccessary, but inevitable. Slam has changed in the 25 years since it grew as an off shoot of spoken word. Because of its exposure on television, it became more about a look, a set of semiotics. This is horse shit. This is what art comes to destroy.