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King Lear

Conformity is motivated by a need for communal belonging or acceptance, or to deflect the worse pains and consequences of failing to be accepted by one’s desired group. Based on the anxiety of expulsion, punishment and ostracism, or disapproval and towards the enjoyment of privilege and status. When failing to conform, or when losing face, the resulting wounded pride or shame may lead to acts of disobedience, or to acts of slinking off for comfort in groups that suffer the same fate. May also lead to a temporary “mystical” epiphany that displays the hysterical shadow of the conformist self. A species of adolescent narcissism continued into one’s dotage, and, if, not so much willed as merely assumed: beyond the possibility of true action. Literary figures associated with true conformity as I define it: Ivan Illyich and the husband of Anna in Anna Karenina. George in A Doll’s House. Ivan’s final illness is an act of grace. He dies out of the conformist self, truly desires to be something more than an appearance.

True obedience is motivated by a genuine love and admiration and passion for the principles and traditions, and innovations beyond all hope of gain or status, and even to the point of appearing to be the opposite of what one is: disobedient, prideful, and contrary. The self in spiritual or moral crisis, beyond what others may think. Not so much non-conformist, but, rather searching for what Martin Buber called total self giving. In a sense any sincere attempt to live the Shema. Based on love and true integrity to the core values and source of one’s being. Figures in literature who fit this bill: Levin and Anna in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Cordelia in King Lear. Obedience does not rules out sin or error. It rules out the possibility of sin and error as utilitarian ends to acceptance. “Don’t get caught” does not exist for the obedient. It is the aphorism of the conformist.

In short: Conformity is preservation of appearances and reputation. Obedience is preservation of the spirit, and core values of the spirit beyond reputation or appearances.

Obedience is pre-moral to the degree that it seeks the origins of action based on principle and truth. Being pre-moral, it involves agon or birth pain. The obedient are capable of action in so far as they either test the moral fabric of their time not out of being contrary, but out of being passionate, or live its true spirit. They suffer, and what they suffer is detachment from the world of appearances and approval. Saints go through such persecution–very often from the church or faith that later perceives them as saints. It is not enough for the obedient to conform, and for this reason, they are capable of great mercy towards sinners, and those who are outcast. They are also the few who can challenge power without seeking to eat of the poisoned apple of power.

Even when conforming to “anti-establishment”-ism it is done with an agenda. If consciously “non-conformist” it revels in its “daring” and “evil.” If consciously conservative, it seeks always the “proper” image, and may be the first to persecute saints. Unlike the sinner, the conformist is not inept or even wounded–at least not visibly. Conformists are the gate keepers of both the establishment and anti-establishment orders. They are the successful bureaucrats of what is proper or properly improper. They are whores of the appropriate. Their goal is the power of the arbitrary, and for this very reason, that they allow no one (except themselves) to act in an arbitrary manner, but hold all accountable to whatever law serves their ends. Their shadow is strong and will often undo them. Terrified of scandal they will run from it until they run right into it. They hold the line. For them judgment is always paramount. They are incapable of true action, and are both somehow servile and untrustworthy at once. Of all the types Jesus Christ railed against, this is what he found reprehensible in the spiritual leaders of his age: this preference for conformity rather than obedience. He took a measure of them when he said: “Do what they say, for what they say comes from God, but do not do what they do, for they lay heavy burdens on others they, themselves, are unwilling to carry.”

Conformity is at all times visible. Obedience is seldom visible, but may be intuited by those who, like the obedient, wish to move beyond mere appearances.

My goals for teaching: to help students move from conformist, or conforming non-conformist to minds capable of true action within the realm of the obedient. To that end:

1. To know what mechanisms, and traditions, and limitations move them and make them creatures of mere motion, and to either test, amend, or move beyond these mechanisms to some fuller sense of true action.

2. To test all actions, all hope with a full knowledge of their imperfections, to show mercy and understanding for the imperfections of others, and to clearly delineate for themselves what they perceive to be the beautiful and the good.

3. To help my students be fearless about being troubled, uncertain, restless, and to make these states of being more than merely the hormonal or socially driven rites of youth. To make a lifelong commitment to what Martin Buber called answering relational being with one’s whole being.

4. To understand my own mechanisms and limitations and to amend, or improve where I can, and to be aware when amendment or improvement is not immediately possible.

When I was ten or so, a large flock of starlings, and assorted brown-headed cowbirds used to come visit a deserted lot near my house every fall. I liked nothing better than to run among them, and listen to the collective soughing swoop of their wings as they lit out for the trees. It was best if the sky was full of brooding cumuli. It was best if the wind was trying to rip the brown leaves from the pin oaks.

I don’t know why this made me feel so happy. When those birds no longer showed up the next year, it was a short but real grief that overcame me, and I would go to the lot in order to feel my grief more keenly. Since the birds were no longer present, my grief over their absence sufficed.

Wildness–to spin, to run amuck, to go shouting into the sea…all this unbridled sense of motion–has something to do with obedience. In the world beyond mere social order, obedience takes the place of conformity. There is a cycle of seasons, a rising and ooze of sap, a motion of tides, a curl of carrot leaf and wave, and all this grand motion obeys. It is not disobedient. Disobedience only exists where the laws have already built the scaffold of conformity from which preachers admonish and on which sinners hang.

A year or two later, I had found an old, slightly water logged copy of King Lear, and I read it with much confusion but with far more delight in its loud cacophony of sounds. I liked saying the words aloud in a very pretentious voice:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!

The birds came back, and instead of running among them, I shouted this speech of mad Lear as loudly as I could. They scattered! The second time I did it, they scattered less. On the third try, they just kept grazing on the seeds and grasses and ignored me. The birds understood the first and second delivery as a threat not much different than running among them. But, by my third performance, they knew it was no real threat–just some crazy kid in a field shouting. Still, I realized the sounds in this language obeyed some real violence–the violence of wind, and storm, and anger. The words were not imitating nature They were not mimicking a large mammal rushing at a flock, but they contained some of the same energy and violence as that force. Rather than holding the mirror up to nature, they were using some of the mechanisms the dynamics of cacophony. If I had delivered them in a whisper, not one bird would have flown away.

As far as the difference between conformity and obedience goes, we can submit that Cordelia obeys, whereas the Regan and Goneril conform. Obedience in the realm of the social construct can cause us to be misunderstood, even censored. To obey the organic truth underlying principles is much more dangerous than conforming to their outward resemblance. Many great writers pay a price, not for being disobedient, but for being obedient to some necessity beyond mere conforming. To be a non-conformist in this sense means to obey the deeper truth and risk being mistaken as a rebel. Nothing is more perverse to the status quo than true obedience. Goodness does not need the status quo. Evil and mediocrity insist upon it.

Some of the worst conformists I know practice a sort of intentional disobedience. They have no more idea of the underlying principles of the laws they break than the conformist who never thinks of going against the status quo. They break laws for the sake of breaking laws. They, too, like the conformists, are incapable of knowing anything but the letter of the law. In their case, they hate the letter, but do not know the spirit. A saint is always a scandal, always a destructive force in relation to the status quo because a saint obeys in such a true sense that he or she is liberated from the status quo. The saint cannot be tamed by law. Law exists because saints are in short supply.

Rather than telling students not to rhyme or have meter, rather than telling students to write free verse, ask them: what do you think are some of the reasons people rhyme and employ meter. If you work hard at this, you might get:

1. Because it’s fun, and like magic–like a spell (spells, nursery rhyme, any manner of conjuring)
2. Because rhyme and meter takes human speech out of its ordinary ruts (ceremony, or the love of pattern)
3. Because it is a great device for remembering (the reason for rhymed adages and proverbs)
4. Because it can order strong emotions and passions so that they are portable and inversal (Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”).

Then you can ask what might be some of the reasons a poem does not rhyme or have a regular meter:

1. Because the poet wishes to explore subjects beyond the mere sonic semblance of rhyme and meter–in their organic movements so to speak from one thought to another, without struggling to shape thought to a regular pattern.
2. Because the poet wishes to explore the very “normality, and strangeness” of regular speech patterns, of people just thinking or speaking. In short, not a lack of pattern, not randomness, but the complexity of irregular rhythm.
3. Because the printing press was invented, and prose became the dominant force, and the mimetic need for rhyme and regular meter was no longer so urgent.
4. Because free verse can step outside prevailing patterns and enter the stream of consciousness in which the writing is seemingly of the moment, without poetic conceits of rhyme and meter.

All these are legitimate reasons why one might choose either to write in rhyme and meter or free verse. You can also mention other mimetic devices beyond rhyme and meter that free verse has maintained, but in lesser volume: alliteration, anaphora, rhythmic listing, enumeration, hyperbole, metaphor, understatement, over statement. Once you parse out why one might choose one over the other, you can eliminate conventions and get at underlying principles.

Both metered/ rhymed verse and free verse must have a sense of rhythm yet an occasional relief from pattern in order to be effective. Variety is intrinsic to free verse. In rhymed and metered verse, variety is the exception to the rule that keeps the rule honest. In free verse, any prolonged pattern is the exception that keeps the free verse honest (or endangers it). But both conventions rely on variety and pattern. It’s a matter of emphasis (one places pattern above variety, the other variety over pattern), but both variety and pattern show up. Bad rhyme sounds sing-songy. Bad free verse seems to have no real pulse or sense of ceremony. It may as well be prose (and not very good prose). This does not rule out the flat as a value. Intentional flatness, maintained as the law of a poem, is a rhythm of sorts. If it is intentional, then you ask: what is the purpose of the flatness? Some poets are masters of flatness–of that which is so seemingly mundane that its whole poetic effect relies on denying the usual “poetic” effects of poetry: haiku, imagism, objectivism, deadpan, all rely on not seeming to try at too hard to be poetic. But this is not a universal law. It is a convention. It as much a convention as rhyme and meter. It is not the spirit; it is the letter of a certain convention.

So a teacher must avoid teaching conventions as universal laws. If not, the student will become as blind as the teacher and adhere to a rule without ever considering why it is a rule. By the same token, a teacher who insists the students experiment and go hog-wild is also in danger of limiting the student to the letter, and not the spirit. Novelty for its own sake does not an original poem make. It might provide temporary relief from convention, but, when it is made a convention in its own right, it ceases to have value as anything more than a convention: “Hello, I am rebel. I do nothing conventional, and I don’t like anyone who does things conventionally. That, my dear, is my convention. Love me!” God, help us.

All conventions must be tested. All diversions must be tested. If I ran after those birds a hundred times, they would have scattered on the next run. Why? Because a large body moving at them with arms waving is certainly a threat. If they ignore me, they will run the risk of ignoring the dog or cat who comes and eats them. But a boy yelling King Lear is absent some of the exact mechanisms of a predator. We must teach our students to reinvent the wheel over and over again, to go back to origins and test them. Most importantly, a teacher must question his or herself. Do I like this poem because it is good, or because it affirms my ideas? Do I dislike this poem because it is bad, or because it is not my kind of good? Ethics in this sense are much more rare than rules of thumb. Rules of thumb were invented for those who have no intrinsic sense of ethics.

I want students to be obedient–fiercely obedient. I don’t want them to conform. When a true Cordelia enters my classroom, I know because, initially, I am annoyed. Such a creature refutes my laziness. When a conformist enters my class room either as a kiss-ass or as a professional nay-sayer I feel sad. How can I teach someone who conforms, but who can never obey? It is like a child who sees a field of birds, and does not run among them or even feel tempted. Someone has taught that child not to be a child. Someone has killed King Lear.

The second line of Ben Fama’s chapbook New Waves, (Minutes Books 2011), is  “All I want is my life/ to matter somehow.” And it seems that this book sets out to execute that statement despite the line’s futility. I say this with sincerity since it’s an important aspect of the human condition (especially for writers) but remains an ungraspable, continuous pursuit. In short, this is a book composed with clear-minded longing. The cultural awareness is unpretentious, the feeling is real, and the structures are solid.

There’s been a post about Ben Fama’s poetry brooding in me since his last chapbook, Aquarius Rising, came out from Ugly Duckling Presse in 2010, and that’s because his poetry sticks with me. The word “hipster” has been thrown around a bit in reviews, but I find the term superfluous and dismissing. The difference between Ben Fama’s poems and many of his so-called hipster contemporaries is palpably clear. Some think it taboo to talk about things like texting and internet in poetry, but this calls to mind Ezra Pound who wrote “The artist is always beginning. Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery is of little worth. The very name Troubadour means a ‘finder,’ one who discovers.” Using off-limit terminology indicates the poet bending expectations, respecting the readers’ ability to move forward in thought. It is authentic ventures unto the brink of expectation I find most engaging in new poetry. Most importantly, the poet remains unequivocally loyal to the poem that wants to be written. Certainly that is the case with Ben Fama. How can we live in a culture so deeply entrenched in electronics and digital communication without interacting with it emotionally? Being “timeless” isn’t about removing the contemporary but about writing a good poem. Period. In this new collection, the poems feel they are exactly as they should be, even with their flaws. But flaws are imperative, essential to development, and are what make the poems here stunning.

Deeply entrenched in the occult, Fama explores known and unknown realms of human life. The speaker is concerned with prophecy, but in his impatience or frustration, he himself begins prophesying. He’s looking into a crystal ball, asking why the hell things happen this way, then taking on the roll of soothsayer himself: “Ivan the Inconsolable, / don’t forget how good things are. / You know you can always / sleep in the grass.” With all his questioning and yearning the speaker is still thwarted—with love (lots with love) with family, even with divination itself. But this yearning is what drives the poetry. To pause for a moment over the ending of [This world repeats a soft etc.]

Once I was a teen king
thundering over the peasants.
I was born in the image of Steve.
Once I was a farm boy
on the level of clouds.
Float me back to those heights.
I remember yellow heat
in my yellow clothes and
an idea like a campfire
telling me it wasn’t sure
I’ve ever done the right thing.
Now when it asks for cures
I retrieve an amulet from a secret
altar of things that make me calm
to look upon, and when it asks
Fama, where is your love now?
I think about eating poutine
from the small of her back.

In his interview with Ben Pease on Scattered Rhymes, I learned Poutine is a dish consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds, covered with brown gravy or sauce and sometimes additional ingredients. What’s so arresting in this poem is the speaker’s concern with the enigmatic “idea,” something carried over from childhood maybe—something organic—perhaps even those first moments of real self-doubt. Indeed, the speaker is deeply concerned with the self (more universal than egotistical) exploring complex, layers of self-identity and self-assessment. The “idea” tells the speaker “it wasn’t sure / I’ve ever done the right thing.” The “idea” is purposefully vague, but seems as if it is the voice of the universe or the mystical, shrouded in the speaker’s consciousness. The voice of the universe is in some ways, indifferent, even cruel in this poem. I feel that the poem teeters on a concern with mortality. The occult, the “altar” of items that calm the speak down from these thoughts, again drive him to another question: “where is your love now?” To counteract the gravity of that epiphanic statement, the speaker reverts to a kind of ridiculous eroticism. In a way it’s a defense mechanism that appears (lightly) throughout the book—but somehow Fama manages to make the line both beautiful and absurd, just like poutine.

None of the poems have titles, and while the chapbook is a mere fourteen pages, it’s probably best. There’s a sense of long operatic movement in which each line functions for the whole pulse of a song. The first line of the book situates you in its realm: “The only colors in this world / are yellow and orange.” He doesn’t see things in black and white, but rather two vivid colors—as if this is a new perspective on old traditions. With all their contemporary airs, the poems have a classic feel. This hybridism is a strength Fama wields with finesse, and one I hope he sticks to. Adding to this traditional feel, the settings are, at times, deeply pastoral. It’s another element of yearning, as is his obsession with the mystical (a motif also explored by such poets as W.B. Yeats). However binary the world in Fama’s poems is, everything is turned backward, questioned yet paced at such a speed that we’re lulled out of absolutism. We’re in a place of melancholy, but it’s lit-up like a sun, and the wisdom in the voice helps the reader find it more relatable: “I wake heavy, I don’t know why.” The musical calm is perhaps one of the most striking elements; calm that resists the sometimes overt anxiety (“People want / me to do certain things but I won’t if it’s boring”). The book is wrought with a tone that adds fluidity to the dualistic system, keeping it interesting. The opening poems pull you in and carry you weightlessly throughout, the first lines burning in your mind until the last moment. New Waves is elegant, quietly devastating, but with an aura of hopefulness and clarity. He’s talking about gchats while wrapping the reader into the earnest futility of desire. The speaker seems young, but not naïve.  He’s lost, he’s looking, he’s examining.

The poems are intimate, but there are gaps of information. They aren’t necessarily confessional, as they give much space for the reader to do work. Delicate if not obscure references to the speaker’s past (“I was born in the image of Steve”) are mixed with flourishes of the surreal, and again there’re vague illusions to the speaker’s concern with mortality (“If I leave / leave a lock on my tomb.”) The poems are concrete, and still there is always a question of reality:

My therapist says
I use writing as
a perceptive model
that allows me to
interpret reality—

This passage seems almost a wry reference to the confessional poets, but we are quickly brought back into Fama’s unique landscape: “though my paradigm / remains immature and / I bring toxic energy / to new relations.” The humor and intimacy in the language allows for the reader to enter in completely, but without the feeling that we’re being told what to feel or how, nor does it employ the opposite effect of leaving us cold.

Ultimately, when I leave Fama’s chapbook, I think what is most important is that there’s passion. It seems such a simple thing, but it’s so often an elusive asset. In New Waves, healing and destruction are simultaneously experienced; ecstasy and pain are the same beast, yet the work is never overwrought. New Waves is a homage to love lost, to the mystical, to immaturity stained with experience.

The last lines of William Shakespeare’s King Lear have just come to mind. This collection feels like the wisdom realized after a long, insane escapade of emotional thwarting and general human grievances. Somehow, comingled within youth and folly and agedness, is the need to be (in its many forms) passionate and open. I don’t mean open as in confessional, nor do I mean that one has to write like Ben Fama does—rather the opposite: that what is sometimes lacking in new poetry is a patience and honesty with one’s inner workings. What is happening is Fama is interacting with his own surroundings and experiences with an astounding clarity. He doesn’t shut out what he experiences intellectually and casually. What is important to him becomes important to us. He doesn’t care about what he “ought to say” in pleasing an audience, he says what he feels. As writers, we needn’t stifle that unique element of how we each interpret reality. We can bring forth, with all its faults and strangeness, how we exclusively relate with the world. And this is the direction Ben Fama is going in with stunning, mottled vigor. As Albany says:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, not live so long
King Lear Act V, Scene III