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This is the final part of Brian’s essay.

The final Hughes poem this essay will address is “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” a long, poetic sequence about Harlem published in 1951, a sequence that relies on the rhythms of jazz, ragtime, swing, and blues to address and protest racial oppression. In Hog Butchers, Bus Boys, and Beggars, John Marsh states that not only did the “low-down” folks give birth to jazz, but they also received something back from it. “It gives them purpose and focus,” he writes. “They have invented it because they need it” (167). What Marsh doesn’t address, however, is the way black music forms link “Montage of a Dream Deferred” together, even as poems and voices cut off and another voice and poem begins. In his essay, “Movies, Modernity, and All That Jazz; Langston Hughes’s ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred,’” Bartholomew Brinkman writes that while the jazz rhythms may threaten the lyric stability and unity of the poems, the poem’s use of manic bop rhythms the sequence to “move from a critical gesture to an affirmative one, recouping its loss of a private, lyrical subjectivity and instituting in its place a communal one” (93). Furthermore, Brinkman adds that like a jazz performance, there is a forward momentum to the sequence that depends upon the ordering of the poems (93).

While the poems may seem disparate, when read together, they represent the tension in post-war Harlem, the anxiety over the dreams deferred and the racial inequality that still plagued communities. What separates the sequence from Hughes’ other Harlem-based poems is that “Montage” showcases a class-conscious Harlem.

All of this frustration is reflected in “Montage of a Dream Deferred.” The sequence opens with the poem “Dream Boogie,” which begins with the traditional ballad stanza, a-b-a-b rhyme scheme, “The boogie-woogie rumble/of a dream deferred” (The Collected Poems 388). The sound of music is accompanied by the sound of feet stomping in poetic rhythm, but there is a violent undertone pulsating in the poem, though something is about to break and explode. The “boogie-woggie” sound rumbles in the first stanza, and one of the two speaker asks, “You think/It’s a happy beat?.” The poem indicates potential militant violence, pointing not only to the questions the italicized voice asks about the nature of the beat, but one of the last lines, “Take it away,” which could refer to the dream addressed in the first stanza. The dream is literally and musically taken away. In addition, the meter breaks down in the poem, and stanzas are frequently cut off by the italicized voice, thus creating a back and forth sequence, a question and answer between the notion of the dream and the dream deferred.

In another poem in the sequence, “Ballad of the Landlord,” Hughes uses the traditional ballad form again, while highlighting the poverty and hardships blacks faced. He then smashes the form after the speaker in the poem is arrested. The sonic techniques Hughes employs, especially the use of repetition, are especially effective in showing just how desperate the conditions were. The poems begins:

Landlord, landlord

My roof has sprung a leak.

Don’t you ‘member I told you about it

Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,

These steps is broken down.

When you come up yourself

It’s a wonder you don’t fall down. (The Collected Poems 402).

For the most part, the opening stanzas adhered to the ballad form, especially in terms of the rhyme scheme and meter. The repetition of the phrase “Landlord, landlord” is an effective sonic technique because it shows how much the tenant tried to get the landlord’s attention. Eventually, however, the tenant has had enough, especially after the landlord asks for more money.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?

Ten bucks you say is due?

Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’ll pay you

Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?

            You gonna cut off my heat?

            You gonna take my furniture and

            Throw it in the street?

            Uh-huh! You talking high and mighty.

            Talk-on till you get through.

            You ain’t gonna be able to say a word

             If I land my fist on you. (The Collected Poems 402).

After the tenant threatens violence, the rest of the poem changes. The ballad form, especially the doggerel rhymes and meter, break down. The tenant’s voice is gone, replaced by the landlord’s, who cries out, “Police! Police!/Come and get this man!/He’s trying to ruin the government/And overturn the land!” (The Collected Poems 402). Like other poems in “Montage,” Hughes depicts the change of voice by using italics and altering the rhythm. The final three lines read like newspaper headlines: “MAN THREATENS LANDLORD/TENANT HELD NO BAIL/JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN JAIL” (The Collected Poems 403).

           On multiple levels, “Montage” illustrates the inequality that plagued Harlem. The poem is a drastic shift from “Harlem Night Club” and “Harlem Night Song.” Not only does Hughes experiment with form, mixing traditional ballad forms with frantic bebop rhythms, but the content marks a stark contrast to the optimism of his Harlem Renaissance-era poems. “Montage” is a sequence written after the Harlem riots, a period when Cold War politics silenced dissent and nearly disrupted the growing call for civil rights and equality. The poetic sequence stands as a fine critique of American capitalism and racial inequality and draws attention to a country that fought in a world war under the banner of freedom and justice, while ignoring growing tensions at home.

           By using sound, specifically laughter, blues, and jazz, as an essential part of his work and defending black music forms and black art in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes challenges the sonic color-line and ideas from the Enlightenment Period that can be seen in the early 20th Century. For Hughes, these sounds are not mere noise, but an essential part of black culture, an extension of the slave songs, a way to protest racial segregation, and an escape from the “weariness” of a white world. Furthermore, Hughes’s use of sound documents Harlem from the 1920s to the 1950s, capturing the optimism of the Harlem Renaissance period and the frustration of the later years.

 

 

Works Cited

Brinkman, Bartholomew. “Movies, Modernity, and All That Jazz: Langston Hughes’s ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred.’” African American Review. Spring/Summer 2010. Vol. 44: 85-96. EBSCOhost. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.

Chaser, Mike. “The Sounds of Black Laughter and the Harlem Renaissance: Claude McKay, Sterling Brown, and Langston Hughes.” American Literature. March 2008. Volume 80, Number 1: 58-81. EBSOhost. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.

Cullen, Countee. “Poet on Poet.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Davis, Arthur P. “The Harlem of Langston Hughes’ Poetry.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Goodale, Greg. Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Record Age. Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2011. Print.

Griffin, Farah Jasmine. Harlem Nocturne. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2013. Print.

Halliday, Sam. Sonic Modernity: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture, and the Arts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2013. Print.

Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Arnold Rampers and and David Roessel, Eds.New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.

The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. Dana Gioia, David Mason, Meg Schoerke, Eds. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003. Print.

Jemie, Onwuchewa. “Hughes’s Black Esthetic.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Johnson, Charles. “Jazz Poetry and Blues.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Marsh, John. Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.

Petry, Ann. “Harlem.” Holiday. April 1949. Volume 5, Issue 4: 110, 112-116, 163-166, 168. Print.

Radano, Ronald. “Hot Fantasies: American Modernism and the Idea of Black Rhythm.” in Music and the Racial Imagination. Ronald Radano and Philip V. Bohlman, Eds. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. Print.

Stoever-Ackerman, Jennifer. “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York.” Social Text 102. Spring 2010. Volume 28, Number 1: 59-85. Print.

Stoever-Ackerman, Jennifer. “The word and the sound: listening to the sonic colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative.” Sound Effects. 2011. Volume 1, Number 1: 20-36. Web. 7 November 2013.

LangstonHughes2

This is essay is divided into three parts. Part two will post on Wednesday, and part three on Friday.

 

          While many critics have noted the influence of blues and jazz on Langston Hughes’s poetry, little has been written about Hughes from a sound studies standpoint. His sonic landscapes not only chronicle Harlem from the 1920s to 1950s, but  also challenge the sonic color-line, specifically ideas from the Enlightenment Period about sound and logic, ideas that still persisted in the first half of the 20th Century, evident through early criticism of ragtime and jazz. In defending black music forms and using specific sounds in his work, including blues, jazz, and laughter, sounds of interwar and post-war Harlem, Hughes challenges 19th Century notions that only white speech is clear and reasoned and sounds unable to be pinned down, particularly sounds of the racialized Other, are purely emotional and non-logical; Hughes’s sonic landscapes also serve as a protest against racial segregation and a critique of American capitalism.

           Before addressing Hughes’s poetry and his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” it is important to give definition to the sonic color-line and understand some of the key ideas regarding sound from the Enlightenment Period that Hughes’s work reacts against, especially since such ideas still persisted just as Hughes’s career was beginning. The idea of the sonic color-line can be attributed to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s work on sound studies, specifically her essays “The word and the sound: listening to the sonic colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative” and “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York.” In her first essay, she notes that the sonic colour-line describes race through “aural signifiers as well as visual ones” (21). The racial etiquette of the 19th Century distinguished between white sounds and black sounds, and included aural behavior, such as musical tastes, public displays of emotion, vocal tones, and accents in speech (22). Furthermore, the dominant cultural of the time labeled black sounds as non-logical. Because the sounds did not conform to white European standards, they were considered non-logical, overly emotional, and wild.

           In her other essay, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line,” Stoever-Ackerman notes that the idea of the sonic color-line stems from W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea of the visual color-line in the Souls of Black Folks and his re-imagining of the color-line in Dusk of Dawn (65). She adds that we see race as well as hear it, and “sonic phenomena like vocal timbre, accents, and musical tones are racially coded, like skin color, hair texture, and clothing choices” (65).

           Stoever-Ackerman’s work points to several examples of the sonic color-line existing in the 19th Century, but it was also evident in early criticism of jazz and ragtime music, specifically the way critics linked the black music forms to wildness and nervousness. In Anne Shaw Faulkner’s 1921 essay “Does Jazz Put Sin in Syncopation?”, published in Ladies’ Home Journal, the author writes, “In almost every big industry where music has been instituted, it has been found necessary to discontinue jazz because of its demoralizing effect” (qtd. in Halliday 144-145). She adds that after the workers indulged in such music, there was an unsteadiness and unevenness to their work product.

          Other critics and record companies saw a distinction between jazz for a white audience and jazz for a black audience. Greg Goodale notes in his book Sonic Persuasion that record companies tried to manipulate Americans into categorizing music based on race and forced black bands to play “hot jazz” to cater to what they perceived to be the black sound (82-83). Hot jazz often had poor connotations and was frequently associated with drunkenness and sexual frenzy. These negative depictions of jazz, constructs of race, and ideas left over from the Enlightenment Period drew strong reactions from Hughes not only in his poetry, but also his manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” First published in 1926, the essay is critical of black poets that try to be white and avoid using black music forms. Hughes writes:

Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing ‘Water Boy,’ and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too (151).

The essay was published shortly after critic George S. Schuyler criticized Hughes in The Nation for his reliance on black music forms. Schuyler’s criticism echoes Counte Cullen’s review of Hughes’s debut poetry collection, The Weary Blues, for Opportunity in 1926. Though the review was generally favorable, Cullen was critical of Hughes for relying so much on jazz and blues.

Taken as a group the selections in this book seem one-sided to me. They tend to hurl the poet into the gaping pit that lies before all Negro writers, in the confines of which they become racial artists instead of artists pure and simple. There is too much emphasis here on strictly Negro themes; and this is probably an added reason for my coldness toward the jazz poems—they seem to set a too definite limit upon an already limited field (39).

To Hughes, however, jazz was a fundamental part of black life and essential to Harlem, what he labeled in the “Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain as “the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world” (150).

Hughes’s defense of jazz may have come because he realized jazz was a way for whites to transcend their racial identity and subvert negative constructs of black sound, thus realizing the music does not lead to hysteria or drunkenness. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, black jazz musicians played with white musicians in recording studios and in bars. In 1931, Louis Armstrong was arrested outside of a club in Los Angeles for smoking marijuana with white drummer Vic Berton (Goodale 83). It became more and more common to see integration on stage, even if major record companies tried to construct sound in terms of race and market to white and black audiences.

This integration is represented in Hughes’ 1926 poem “Harlem Night Club,” and like a lot of his other 1920s poems, it represents the optimism of the Harlem Renaissance that black art forms could be a way to transcend racial barriers, or more specifically a way for whites to enjoy black music forms and overcome racial constructs and identity.

Sleek black boys in a cabaret.

Jazz-band, jazz-band, ––

Play, play, PLAY!

Tomorrow…who knows?

Dance today!

White girls’ eyes

Call gay black boys.

Black boys’ lips

Grin jungle joys.

Dark brown girls

In blond men’s arms.

Jazz-band, jazz-band—

Sing Eve’s charms!

White ones, brown ones,

What do you know

About tomorrow

Where all paths go?

Jazz boys, jazz boys—

Play, PlAY , PLAY!

Tomorrow…. Is darkness.

Joy today!

  The poem presents a mixing of races, brought together by the jazz music, a scene that would have been common in the larger cities in the 1920s and 1930s. The “white girls’  eyes/Call gay black boys” while “Dark brown girls” dance “in blond men’s arms.” The speaker of the poem implores the jazz band to keep playing so racial barriers can be overcome and young whites can transcend racial identities, particularly the ideas that whites should not like this type of music, but the poem also poses the question “Tomorrow…who knows?”.  That question can be read two ways. Either the speaker believes that the jazz movement could lead to the erosion of racial barriers, or the speaker understands that once the music stops and once the listeners step outside, they will be re-introduced to racial constructs.  The later idea is more likely since the speaker admits in the final stanza, “Tomorrow…Is darkness/Joy today!.” For at least the moment, however, while the band keeps playing, racial barriers are non-existent and the whites realize that listening to this music has no negative effects.

Furthermore, the poem mirrors the syncopation of ragtime music and early jazz, employing syncopation so no regular meter or rhyme scheme is established. The opening stanza has a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-c-a. Two out of the lines in the stanza rhyme with nothing else, thus disrupting the pattern. Hughes does this throughout the rest of the poem as well, establishing what appears to be a rhyme scheme, before breaking it with one or two lines that do not adhere to the structure. In addition, Hughes changes the capitalization of the words “play” in the first and last stanza, also disrupting the rhythm. Like a lot of Hughes’s poems that employ music, his form mirrors the content.

Visit TheThe again on Wednesday for part two.

Le_Reading_at_LPR_Event

Prayer for Topaz, 1942

Dear God,

Mom said you are busy and don’t have time to listen to a little 8-year-old Negro girl from North Carolina and her foolishness, like praying for a box of candy. That would be selfish. But if it’s really important she said, then I should take it to you in prayer like the preacher says on Sundays.

I’m not asking for anything for me. But I’ve been hearing the kids at school talking about some place out west called Topaz. At first I thought they were talking about a spot to get rings and flashy jewelry, but Margaret’s big brother, Ed, who’s in 5th grade, says it’s something like a jail where they put Japanese people. I didn’t believe him because he’s always trying to scare us girls. So I asked my dad, and he said it’s true. The government put them there so that the country would be safe. I know that some Japanese airplane men did some bad things in Hawaii back before Christmas, but the people they put away aren’t from over there. They’re Americans and some have been here since before I was born. Some of them are just tiny little girls like me.

I know, God, I’m young, but I really don’t understand how the government thinks that a little Japanese girl could hurt this big country. Anyway God, I’m praying for you to take care of those little Japanese girls and boys. I hope they have some toys to play with and maybe some candy. I hope they get to go home soon.

And God, while you are doing that, could you also watch over me and my family and all of us at school. I worry that we might be next.

 

_________________________________________

Le Hinton is the author of five poetry collections including, most recently, The Language of Moisture and Light (Iris G. Press, 2014). His work can (or will) be found in journals such as Little Patuxent Review and the Baltimore Review, anthologies such as The Best American Poetry 2014 and outside Clipper Magazine Stadium, incorporated into Derek Parker’s sculpture Common Thread in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

 

 

Ned at Atomic Books Aug '13

First Thaw

This morning was the first time: all the snow
that buried us receding, still in drifts
piled high, crusted with ice and yet receding,
slowly drawing back—abandoned cars
revealed, crushed grass, the shattered road ice-slicked,
salt-splashed, slush running downstream, breaking up
over the drains, dissolving….All this time
I thought the whole world lost, but now the light
glances off roofs still cracking with the weight—
a little less, today. The second time
is now: when I can bear to look around
once more and watch this world emerge—old world
from which so much is missing still, new world
in which so much will, one day soon, appear.

______________________________________________

Ned Balbo’s The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems (Story Line Press) was awarded the 2012 Poets’ Prize and the 2010 Donald Justice Prize. His two previous books are Lives of the Sleepers (Ernest Sandeen Prize and ForeWord Book of the Year Gold Medal) and Galileo’s Banquet (Towson University Prize). He was co-winner of the 2013 Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. His commentary on the poetic turns in Andrew Hudgins’ “Mary Magdalene’s Left Foot” appears at Voltage Poetry.

First Thaw” appeared previously in Lives of the Sleepers (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005).

 

 

 

In many of the pieces I’ve turned in for a Creative Writing class, they’ve been returned with red ink underlining the first line, usually with comments like “This needs to have more impact” or “How does this draw in the reader?” Plus, there’s always one class period dedicated entirely to the crafting of the first line. Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m wondering if these first sentences are really the best ways to open this article.

The first lines of our poems can promise us interested audience or convince them our work is worth skipping over. From what I’ve learned from my studies so far, a good opening grabs a reader’s attention. I’ve also seen from my own reading that trying too hard to get their notice can make the lines feel forced and serve as a worse opening than something more generic.

This emphasis in my classes and the complexity of first lines I’ve experienced in my own writing led me to wonder what truly makes a great first line and what people’s favorite first lines are. I took to THEthe’s tumblr and twitter page to ask our followers.

Some of our responses were from our reader’s own poems:

thethefirstlinesoriginalpoetry

Others responded with some published and famous works:

thethefirstlinesfamouspoetry

While I had read some of these poems before this gave me the opportunity to look up many of these poems. What I noticed was that many of these first lines left a strong visual image along with an emotional connection, most notably love or sadness. An image by itself in an opening can be memorable, as in one of our followers’ original poem, which compares cervical mucus to egg whites. This also gives a bit a mystery to beginning of the piece because although the bodily fluid obviously will relate somehow, the reader must read more to find out what’s going on in in the piece. It can sometimes be difficult to pull out extraordinary descriptions but simpler image may be more readily available. In this case, it may be more effective to juxtapose the image with a strong emotion that isn’t usually associated with that image. For example, one follower mentioned the opening to Louise Gluck’s “The Wild Iris.” While the image of a door is not all that exciting, and certainly not very memorable, when combined with the feeling of suffering the lines become a powerful combination that pulls the reader in. Sorrow isn’t typically a feeling one would think of alongside something as typical as a door, and by putting them together the poet creates interest.

Still there are other amazing poetic openings not mentioned by our followers, but still are worth examining. For instance, Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, begins with “Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.” While this line doesn’t meet either of the characteristics previously mentioned, it does give the reader (or in the case was for Homer’s audience: the listener) an immediate sense of what the following story is about. We learn that our main character is smart, strong, and a veteran of the famous battle of Troy. We also know that this story will be about his journey after the battle, and that it will be a long journey. Also, Milton’s Paradise Lost opens by telling the readers what they are about to experience. The first book opens with “Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit/Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe.” It is becomes obvious to the reader within these first few lines that the tale will be about Adam and Eve and their infamous story of the origin of sin. Neither of these poems open with bold imagery or obvious emotional connections, but they are still regarded as iconic and beautiful first lines. There is something in the simplicity of these lines, along with those of other epic poems, which are inviting to a reader. These lines seduce the reader with the promise of an adventure or tale, which the reader then gets to experience vicariously through the poet and the characters in the poem. There is also this hint of a narrative in the lyrical first lines. It may not be as direct as epic poems, but it is there in an unusual image, or evocative phrase. Look again at the Louise Gluck’s line. Both the suffering and the door promise a story of some sort, one of an upsetting past and the other of a hopeful future.  However, there is a lack of immediacy in epic poems that is present in lyrical poetry.

This easily explained by the difference in lengths between these exceptionally longer epic poems and the shorter lyrical pieces. Epic poetry has many chapters, in some cases books, in which to ease the reader into a scene and topic of a story. Meanwhile, lyrical poems have less space available and must get to the essential parts of the scene immediately. Shorter works from the same time periods as Homer and Milton have similar first lines to modern lyrical poetry.

There is also a sense of intimacy in the openings of lyrical poetry that is lacking in the epic poems. Homer’s work addresses the muses in the first line, seemingly talking to a third party. The epic poem begins with holding the reader at a distance, although it invites them to read the story. Lyrical poetry is more personal and usually addresses a “you” or “we”, even in the first lines of the poems. These lines give the allusion that the poet is speaking directly to the reader.  Whoever the poem is about served as a sort of “muse” to the poet and that’s who they are truly addressing, but the language gives the sense that it can be about anyone, including the reader.

Thanks to all of our followers who responded!

 

There are many reasons why Karl Shapiro is no longer taught or on the lips of MFA students.

First, he was part of the post-war formalist/structuralism/urban boom in poetry, but he had enjoyed great success (Pulitzers and whatnot), and he was a Jew. A Jew with a Pulitzer in the 1940s/1950s who was neither humble nor particularly unwashed and earnest (Shapiro…was dapper) was treated with some envy and contempt.

Second, the Beats had visited him and not thought themselves properly treated (they expected a hipster jazz sort of poet because it was Shapiro–not Ginsberg–who first start writing in long rhapsodic free verse lines in emulation of Whitman). Shapiro became for them the symbol of stuffed shirt bougie poetics (as you will see from this poem, Shapiro was anything but. He was sexually open and using the long free verse line a good ten years before Allen Ginsberg came anywhere near it).

Shapiro was buried under the reps of Lowell, and Jarrell, and Berryman. Of those three, Berryman appeals most to post-structural poets (he’s the darling of every grad students MFA program). Lowell has enjoyed a rise in fortune after a ten or fifteen year eclipse. Jarrell’s name is starting to come up again, albeit more for his essays than poems.

But here’s the rub: Shapiro was doing everything they got the credit for innovating a good ten years before they were doing it: including confessional poetry. Those who run poetry are shrewd. They know the best way to disappear a poet is to refuse to talk about him–neither to praise nor ridicule, simply relegate him to a non-entity status. Ginsberg (and I think this makes Ginsberg a total self serving piece of shit) would not admit that it was Shapiro’s sexually explicit, long lined free verse poems, and not Whiman’s, that influenced him most immediately. (Whitman made for a more exciting father). Shapiro was a Jew with a Pulitzer. It was Shapiro to an extent who represented the most legitimate use of Whitman in terms of modern poetry–not Ginsberg. So what were Shapiro’s sins? He was eloquent, and proud. He probably pissed off the Columbia school (Trilling may have sniped at him, and Ginsberg and the Beats were Trilling’s pet primitives).

It doesn’t matter. He is a superb poet who does not deserve to be in obscurity but will remain so. Below is his “Aubade,” written in the 1940s when Ginsberg was a student. It’s elaborate, courtly, sexually explicit, but purposefully artful, and it uses the long Whitmanesque line and the sense of humor–the American suburban wise ass that Ginsberg would employ in Supermarket in California. We must return to Shapiro. We won’t. So it goes:

AUBADE – KARL SHAPIRO

What dawn is it?

The morning star stands at the end of your street as you watch me turn to laugh a kind of goodbye, with
love-crazed head like a white satyr moving through wet bushes.
The morning star bursts in my eye like a hemorrhage as I enter my car in a dream surrounded by your
heavenly-earthly smell.
The steering wheel is sticky with dew,
The golf course is empty, husbands stir in their sleep desiring, and though no cocks crow in suburbia, the
birds are making a hell of a racket.
Into the newspaper dawn as sweet as your arms that hold the old new world, dawn of green lights that
smear the empty streets with come and go.
It is always dawn when I say goodnight to you,
Dawn of wrecked hair and devastated beds,
Dawn when protective blackness turns to blue and lovers drive sunward with peripheral vision.
To improvise a little on Villon
Dawn is the end for which we are together.

My house of loaded ashtrays and unwashed glasses, tulip petals and columbine that spill on the table
and splash on the floor,
My house full of your dawns,
My house where your absence is presence,
My slum that loves you, my bedroom of dustmice and cobwebs, of local paintings and eclectic posters,
my bedroom of rust neckties and divorced mattresses, and of two of your postcards, Pierrot
with Flowers and Young Girl with Cat,
My bed where you have thrown your body down like a king’s ransom or a boa constrictor.

But I forgot to say: May passed away last night,
May died in her sleep,
That May that blessed and kept our love in fields and motels.
I erect a priapic statue to that May for lovers to kiss as long as I’m in print, and polish as smooth as the
Pope’s toe.
This morning came June of spirea and platitudes,
This morning came June discreetly dressed in gray,
June of terrific promises and lawsuits.

And where are the poems that got lost in the shuffle of spring?
Where is the poem about the eleventh of March, when we raised the battleflag of dawn?
Where is the poem about the coral necklace that whipped your naked breasts in leaps of love?
The poem concerning the ancient lover we followed through your beautiful sleeping head?
The fire-fountain of your earthquake thighs and your electric mouth?
Where is the poem about the little one who says my name and watches us almost kissing in the sun?
The vellum stretchmarks of your learned belly,
Your rosy-fingered nightgown of nylon and popcorn,
Your razor that caresses your calves like my hands?
Where are the poems that are already obsolete, leaves of last month, a very historical month?
Maybe I’ll write them, maybe I won’t, no matter,
And this is the end for which we are together.
Et c’est la fin pour quoy sommes ensembles.

These heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here.

–James Joyce, Ulysses [2176]

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, a translator and poetry scholar, has a beautiful essay accompanied by a selection of translations of the Belgian poet Jean Daive in issue 2.2 of continent. The sampling of work that Oei addresses all derive from his translation of Daive’s Narration d’équilibre: Antériorité du scandale, ‘Sllt’, Vingt-quatre images seconde (Paris: Hachette/P.O.L, 1982) and Oei is quick to mention that his annotations are not intended to present a “…meticulous overview of the different themes, lines, and figures traversing such a voluminous oeuvre. Rather, they form a set of comments that found their way to the margins of the word processing document while translating the work.”

j
Similarly, this note is being written to track a number of comments — ad-ornaments — lining the margins of the print-out of Oei’s essay that I have been reading for the past few weeks while in Berlin working on the preparation of a new issue of continent. This note is written as a divergent hearkening — a kind of hypertranscription of Oei’s essay — though, one that remains entirely convergent with the aims of Oei’s essay. Broadly, my interest in mapping differing readings of poetic texts in relation to earlier readings in the genealogical wake generated by those texts is meant to aim at a concept of divergence itself; certainly one of the notions at stake in the careful unraveling of the Sausserean sign Oei undertakes through readings of Lacan and Derrida, up to Daive’s subsequent work at the level of polysemy and meaning-making in his poetics. The moment we’ve decided that poetic language is one of the questions at play in our analyses, we’ve already ventured into the thickets: the divergent, unofficial matrices of semblance and association that we, in our listening, rely upon as orienting devices. The language of the unofficial is here meant to recall the orienting premise that Oei invokes to structure his investigations. Following in the footsteps of poetry scholar Judith Balso, Oei remarks his investigations as “depart[ing] from Wallace Stevens’ idea that if it is the case that philosophy represents the ‘official view of being,’ poetry can be defined as its ‘unofficial view.’” Just further on, and now approaching Daive, Oei begins his work by asking us to listen to three particular resonances of an odd term in Daive’s title, stating that, “[t]his unofficial being of poetry finds its materialization in “Sllt” (listen to slat, the suppressed ssst of the nocturnal visitor, but also the salut of poetry itself).”

In a sense my reflections will have not moved beyond these three resonances, however over-coded they become, as I aspire to listen to Daive by redoubling them, attempting to think the slat in the middle of translation, and trace three more associations out of profligate possibilities (listen to the curt sult, the double dashes // dividing and intertwining another couple, slit and silt).

1.) Sult (Norwegian hunger, as in Knut Hamsun), itself perhaps a starved and strained attempt to utter salt (with its etymological twin wit as evidenced in the Latin sal). Recall when Daive tells us that “eating is the phrase of here or speaking.” As interpretive maxims go, to keep your wits about you and take it with a grain of salt are both welcome, if not synonymous, reminders.

Already, keen readers may pause to wonder at a kind of metacommentary on a methodology that takes so many witty turns-of-phrase and novel fluctuations in meaning so seriously. Can a method of approaching texts that relies so lasciviously (a sultry, if not slutty way of cruising texts) upon their sonic textures be worth its salt? To what extent? Curious moments like Daive’s phoneme sllt, that we readers want to treat as a word, are, it’s possible, grains of salt in the cryptographer’s sense of the word– randomly chosen bytes inserted into messages prior to decoding to render certain forms of decryption much more difficult. Hard, indigestible bits meaninglessly resisting meaning and, just as obstinately, refusing to be brushed off so easily. To the notions of grains, specks, and motes, to which I am deeply attracted, I return at the end of this note.

2.) Now, with a non-verbal resonance, look at the Roman two-count graphic “II”, that slat that Oei comments upon and implicitly draws into its visual rhyme with the forward slash used to indicate a line break in poetry that has been transcribed without breaks / as well as the cut inaugurated by the image that the poetic text creates. If we follow Stevens’ designation of the unofficial view, it isn’t so hard to translate the language into Dickinsonian, as when she famously implores her readers to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”. An analogy: Stevens’ unofficial view is to being as Dickinson’s slant telling is to truth. (And what of these italics, then? Perhaps a deeper, Dickensonian return to Derrida’s Faith and Knowledge is in order…).

Slant (divergence): We can also stay with the graphic slats and, recalling how Dickinson’s poem continues that “Success in circuit lies”, observe how easily they could be circuited into conversation with that most elementary grapheme of online societies and hypertext protocol: “://”, about which theoreticians of technology and poetics much more capable than I would doubtless have much to say.

3.) Lastly, the slit-silt couple that mirrors plays on the signe-singe couple that forms one of the strong bases of Oei’s text and out of which it’s analyses develop. For Oei’s reading of Daive, the simian (singe) that appears in the course of Daive’s poetry “dwells in the spot previously occupied by the Aristotelian sign (signe)”. Throughout history, sign-making has seemed to signify a certain distinction between humanness and animality, even while definitions of the former have retained an insoluble closeness to the latter (as we hear from old etymological stories about the letter A and Phoenician pictograms for oxen). Indeed, the notion persists into modernity. Says Oei again, “[w]hereas Stéphane Mallarmé imagined the sign as swan (cygne), caught on the white page, Daive focuses on the ‘unofficial,’ mischievous character of the sign, its nearly being human.” As Oei moves from the casting of the ape and the swan, through his cataloging of Daive’s signs – signs that are always “overloaded”, “ambiguous”, “polyvalent”, and “excessive” – it becomes abundantly clear the extent to which every term abounds in it’s resonances and in its role within poetry’s (pa)role to “say everything”. Indeed, every sign is an alloy — a mixture of others (allos-) — and this is perhaps an alternate answer to Daive’s question, “Why this transversal of the others like—”. With an understanding of language itself as alloy (or creole) and the utterance of the similitic like, the dam bursts loosing unfettered slippages; the metamorphoses that so easily displace the solidity of a Sausserean distinction between signifier and signified become dizzying.

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Indeed, each irruption or fibrilation of the foil of poetic texts is a potential lime-twig (one of the myriad branches of Saussere’s tree, under which we find Mallarme’s swan and Daive’s ape) upon which otherwise unseen readings catch. A sensual assault (asllt?) or, if that term seems to hyperbolic, at least a snare, or a little spur (eperon), as in Derrida’s analysis of Nietzsche’s Styles (Eperons).

Shifting the metaphor slightly, we can easily imagine every sign as a slit in a garment that proposes to seduce us, marks a slit in desire, calls us to respond, and in doing so changes the course of our becoming. Daive notes the imperative nature of response itself when he writes that, “[…] we need to respond now. Responding, that is / continuing / and waiting, that is the return of the event. / In fact, it is like a lady, but it is different”. In terms that will be familiar to readers of Badiou, the seduction of encounters opens a path towards fidelity, through which the original encounter can be understood as a true event and the subject of the encounter can become constituted as a subject. Fidelity itself can be comported towards individuals, styles (or dispositions) of things as much as toward texts, ideas, or interpretations thereof.

But, I am taking this path to get caught on another spur, to hesitate not at the signe or singe, but at the tree that stands between them and which plays a central role in Oei’s excursus. It’s the tree, which I will remark here not only to cast again in its role as a genealogical symbol (“We will have children, trees. We will grow up / we will climb.”, writes Daives) and thus remember the genealogical readings that Foucault and Nietzsche insisted upon, but to cast a divergent ending in my reading of Oei’s reading. Through its nuanced and astute annotations, Oei’s text culminates in a meditation on the materials he has inventoried in Daive’s work and a reference to a sculpture by the German artist Joseph Beuys (FOND VII/2 [1967/84]). In the interest of repeating this movement anew and with a focus on the centrality of the, now thoroughly over-determined, figure of the tree I would like to recall another work by Beuys, 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks) – a work consisting of the planting of 7’000 trees, each paired with a basalt column.

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Quoting Beuys,

“My point with these seven thousand trees was that each would be a monument, consisting of a living part, the live tree, changing all the time, and a crystalline mass, maintaining its shape, size, and weight. This stone can be transformed only by taking from it, when a piece splinters off, say, never by growing. By placing these two objects side by side, the proportionality of the monument’s two parts will never be the same.”

Now, in the interest of closing and moving hopefully not too far from Daive and his poems, I would like to suggest that this work by Beuys forms a compelling allegory for the kind of plasticity remarked upon by the philosopher Catherine Malabou as essential not only to the form of the subject in Hegel (where Malabou originally draws her analysis) or neurobiology (where Malabou’s work leads her), but to language itself (poetic language standing not for an instance of language but as a thoroughly recursive denomination for language and the plastic element within language itself, without which it could not be).

For Malabou the concept of plasticity designates a two-fold capacity; in the first instance it stands for the capacity of a material to change and explosively generate new form (as the discipline repeatedly remarked by Daive and Oei, neurology, believes neural pathways to be plastic). Deleuzian reading might think find themselves inclined to conjure the rhizomatic aspen as being a somewhat better suited oak for visualizing this kind of plasticity. In the second instance plasticity designates, in an affinity with the concept as it appears in the plastic arts, the vulnerability of a material to yield to irreversible forming (as Beuys’ stones can be changed solely through the subtractive forces of weather and carving). The simians are not only swinging from branch-to-branch generating new connections and arbitrary combinations in language, as Oei suggests. For Daive, and the materiality of my illustration, “The simians are sitting on stones / at the level of terrestrial / existence.” There is a degree of fundament, subject to being irremediably affected by sudden traumatic injury, degenerative disorders, aphasia.

Amidst so much talk about the plastic arts, plastic wrap, and plastic explosives we can, at the level of our texts also hear the philosopher Avital Ronell reminding us of something akin to destructive plasticity when she notes the confraternity between missives and missiles and remarks upon the small ideas that are planted in texts and go unnoticed for centuries before revealing themselves to be timebombs, detonating registers of meaning, relevance, and decisions once considered as infrangible (Meillassoux). Positions and perceptions are revised if not reversed and, in the interest of closing, I will turn once more to the image of the tree, now as an aid in visualizing what is at stake in these reversals, disruptions, and shifts of focus between myriad signs and significations. Overarching and attendant upon these concerns is the interplay between philosophy’s authorial edifices and what Oei, again quoting the poetry scholar Judith Balso names the “cracks and fissures of the metaphysical framework”, towards which poetic invention must be trained if it is to have political valence. Here, and in the interest of wrapping up, I listen to the Tibetan poet Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche when he writes, commenting on a photograph of a tree:

“Branches. We could view the trees as cracks in the sky, like cracks in glasses. We could adopt that change in perspective. The space that exists around you could be solid—and you could be only a hollow in the middle of that solid space.”

I find it hard to imagine a better description of the kind of perspectival shifts with regard to being that poetry seems so well-suited at facilitating.

But what has any of this to do with silt that last resonance of my original list? Silt- the material below the grain, where speaking of grains or kernels begins to lack any scalar sense (there is always a smaller element to prioritize), that forms the riverbeds for the rivers from which our simians, swans, and philosophers alike undoubtedly drink, will deserve to have much more said about it than I am able to say in this little postscript. As Oei remarks via Lacan and Freud on anagrams, there are unconscious repercussions for our couples such as signe-singe, slit-silt, or Lacan’s originary and slightly more complex arbre-barre. We choose our terms and they are thus consequent. If the Sausserean sign is always split by a (permeable) bar, then any procession of signs or slats is likewise riven by bars and slits. What I call silt is perhaps cognate with Oei’s slat, though in a direction distinctly it’s own. Whereas Daive’s slat (sommier) “contributes to the summation (sommer) of the phrases, series, and seconds—secundus— sequences and persecutions, marching and marking are separated and thus form names, words, albeit in a disowned way: aping”, silt would seem to point to what is visible between (and beneath) the slats; not a plank (like the one that we are perhaps walking) or that Tibetan sutras are traditionally inscribed upon, but still a support (as in a riverbed). Instead of contributing additively to summation, silt would seem to signify the end of a process of wearing down of phrases, series, seconds, and sequences into finer and less distinguishable grit – what is perhaps glimpsed when one’s perception of a tree is hollowed out through the kind of procedure that Trungpa Rinpoche seeks to effect.

In essence, and with continued attention paid to Malabou’s notion of destructive plasticity, silt names that composition of little elements, little dangers, at the level of marks “below” that of the letter, which persist within the sanctioned space of the poem and threaten always to overturn the meaning of that sanctioned space. Take, in closing, the example of the single, unremarked upon, apostrophe before the word ‘Cause in the first line that Oei takes as a starting point for his note keeping. What being does this initial apostrophe abbreviate? What word does it rend itself from? The obvious answer is that Daive’s text actually takes its first step with the slang version of “because”. “Be-”, of course, an abbreviation and hiatus of being in the apostrophe. While the philosophical freight of such a suggestion may not turn out to be extraordinary, to risk such a revision– to cast Daive’s text in the league of those that begin, „Because…“, that is, in the register of those that commence as responses to another– is to wonder whether there was actually a cause — a causa or Aristotelian aition — in the first instance, as Oei has assumed, or always just a partially effaced glyph (rendered indecipherable and disproportionate by the destructive plasticity of time itself) which we struggle, in our diligence and our care, to preserve?

I.

How can we define the philosophy of pragmatism?  What is the relationship between the philosophy of pragmatism and the poetics of John Ashbery?  Is there one?  Ken McClelland cites Cornel West’s citation of C.I. Lewis as “being one of the best characterizations of pragmatism ever formulated” (Opening Truth 12).  Lewis writes,

Pragmatism could be characterized as the doctrine that all problems are at bottom problems of conduct, that all judgments are, implicitly, judgments of value, and that, as there can be ultimately no valid distinction of theoretical and practical, so there can be no final separation of questions of truth of any kind from questions of the justifiable ends of action. (qtd. in McClelland 12)

McClelland goes on to comment that, “with the words, ‘the justifiable ends of action’ in mind, we clearly see that pragmatism’s philosophical impulse is inextricably tied to temporal consequences, with the idea that the future is of ethical significance” (12).  McClelland then cites Dewey’s essay, “The Development of American Pragmatism,” in a long block quote, an excerpt of which reads, “The doctrine of the value of consequences leads us to take the future into consideration.  And this taking into consideration of the future takes us to the conception of a universe whose evolution is not finished, of a universe which is still, in James’ term “in the making,” “in the process of becoming,” of a universe up to a certain point still plastic” (qtd. in McClelland12-13).

This notion of the universe “in the making” and “in the process of becoming” might resonate with readers of John Ashbery’s poetry, a practice of art that, in the able and nimble hands and mind of Ashbery, is constantly in flux, in process, suggesting a seemingly irrational “lack of coherence” that in Ashbery, as William Watkin writes, “does not deny a lack of cohesion” (187).  As Watkin points out,

it is almost always the case that within his poetic units the semantic short-circuiting at the level of coherence is made up for by the two key factors of cohesion which often serve to undermine thematic semantics: lexical groupings and syntactic process. (187 my italics)

This “processual aesthetic” of Ashbery’s poetry is later described by Watkin as “a process of putting down and moving on” (214).  And it is this process of becoming, noted by Dewey in terms of a characteristic of the future, and therefore in terms of the primary orientation of the philosophy of pragmatism, that Ashbery embodies in his poetic praxis.  Ashbery’s work is a radically open-ended language game (language games in the plural seems more appropriate), that seems to give one the experience, through language, of the future in the immediate process of becoming, of things beyond our awareness coalescing, forces turning and tuning up, like a great orchestra just about to begin, as we sit at the edge of our seats and experience

The great, formal affair[…]beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact. (Ashbery 427)

Better yet, as Ashbery himself has said, first quoting an essay by Borges entitled, “The Wall and the Books,” then commenting on it,

‘Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces molded by time, certain twilights in certain places—all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed or about to tell us something. The imminence of the revelation that is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality.’ The imminence of a revelation not yet produced is very important and hard to define in poetry and probably is the source of some of the difficulty with my own poems. But I don’t think it would serve any useful purpose to spare myself or the reader the difficulty of that imminence, of always being on the edge of things.  (qtd. in Hubbard my italics)

“The imminence of a revelation not yet produced” is a remarkable formulation for describing the process of the future unfolding, and it is what I hope to signify by the term the “pragmatist sublime.”  Such a phrase (“the imminence…”) conjures images of openings, or landscapes glimpsed, waterfalls or canyons, suddenly or slowly, possibilities rising up with inexhaustible and astonishing energy, potentials parting like curtains to reveal further potentials, more dazzling drawing rooms, a hall of mirrors of what-may-come-next.  This is the world of Ashbery; and it is also the world of William James, one of the founders of pragmatism, who wrote in Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, (a book that David Herd has called “a guidebook to American poetics before and since” (13))

But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word as closing your quest.  You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience.  It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.  (28 his italics)

“Pragmatism,” James writes a paragraph later, “unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work” (28).  The same can be said, of course, for Ashbery’s poetry, and also for our experience, when we are more sensitized to it.  Indeed, it is one of Ashbery’s greatest virtues as a writer that, in the way which Gunter Leypoldt describes Martha Nussbaum’s take on Henry James –  “moral intelligence….understood as a heightened perception of complexity…[an] ethical progress [becoming] a question of improving our aesthetic powers of discrimination” –  Ashbery augments our powers of feeling, perception and imagination, placing us more immediately within the variety of contexts which constitute our world (Leypoldt 146).  Ashbery, like both James brothers, makes our experience more powerful, more intense, more interesting, more enriching.

This is what David Herd means when discussing Ashbery’s “poems of occasion” – the notion of the “defining Ashberyan ambition” being “to write the poem fit for its occasion,” or “to achieve a poem appropriate to the occasion of its own writing” (7, 10).  It is the idea that currently, as I type, there are more than ten books situated in various alignments on my desk: books about the New York School of poets, books about Richard Rorty, books about Ashbery, and three books in Spanish, one of which I have to translate for a Spanish exam in order to graduate from my master’s in English program at the University of Toledo; there is an orange washrag near the books, a knife coated with stale hummus, a phone peeping out from behind a stack of articles; there are trees outside the window, their leaves, to paraphrase Ashbery in “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat” “yellowed by the sun”; the sounds of cars driving on the road in front of my apartment, the refrigerator in the kitchen humming, a guitar leaning against a bookcase, etc.  All this is part of the “occasion” of which I write right now (not to mention the culture(s) of everything in my apartment, lurking behind or afore everything, making everything somehow a part of a disjointed but connected picture) – and it is this richness and plurality of detail that Ashbery, more than any American poet (with the exception of Whitman, Ashbery’s primary Bloomian precursor), drenches his poems in and with.

This notion of the occasion, written about wonderfully and helpfully by Herd, is what William James also intuits with astonishing insight, returning our thought back to us with Emersonian “alienated majesty,” when he writes in his deservedly famous chapter in Principles of Psychology, “The Stream of Thought,”

The traditional psychology talks like one who should say a river consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other moulded forms of water.  Even were the pails and the pots all actually standing in the stream, still between them the free water would continue to flow.  It is just this free water of consciousness that psychologists [Ashbery might say poets as well] overlook.  Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water [the occasion] that flows round it.  With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of wither it is to lead.  The significance, the value, of the image is all this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it,- or rather that is fused into one with it and has become bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh; leaving it, it is true, an image of the same thing it was before, but making it an image of that thing newly taken and freshly understood. (255)

Therefore, as James writes earlier in the same chapter, “The truth is that large tracts of human speech are nothing but signs of direction in thought” (252-253).  James, like Ashbery, redescribes the climate of our mental environments; in so doing, he gives us, as Ashbery does, a more nuanced, more complex, richer sense of who we are and how we are.  James, like Ashbery, enlarges us.

II.

So how do James and Ashbery achieve such a powerful effect?  How do we understand the consequences of this effect?  The answer to the former question is, of course, their language; for, as McClelland has written, “Experience is linguistic top to bottom (and side to side).”  (Opening Truth 20)  The answer to the latter question demands that we now introduce the figure of Richard Rorty, a neopragmatist whose work sheds incredible light on Ashbery’s poetic praxis, just as Ashbery’s poetic praxis embodies those pragmatist doctrines as mentioned above, just as James’s work sheds incredible light on Ashbery.  But what is it, more specifically, about Rorty’s philosophy, or even his vision as a thinker, that elucidates so well what Ashbery is doing, or Ashbery’s vision as a poet?  More concisely, How does Rorty’s revolutionary philosophy help us understand Ashbery’s revolutionary poetry?  What does it mean to write revolutionary poetry or philosophy?

Let’s begin with what many have deemed an important aspect of Rorty’s thought: his notion of metaphoric redescription as inquiry.  What is “metaphoric redescription as inquiry”?   Christopher J. Voparil writes,

Under different names this work of redescribing was a part of Rorty’s thinking since his earliest published work, where he calls attention to the fact that “any metaphysical, epistemological, or axiological arguments can be defeated by redefinition” – the pihlosopher’s ability to “change the rules” of the game largely by altering the relevant criteria. (33-34)

This approach, Voparil continues, “looks to the imagination, rather than to inference” in order to recontextualize, a process that is “not unlike what takes place in Kuhnian periods of revolutionary science” (34).  And seismic shifts in culture, Kuhn and Rorty might say, happen not through logical argument, but through a different style of imagining and imagination, that reweaves contexts into new, revolutionary tapestries.  This has much to do with James’s notion of temperament, as well as Harold Bloom’s notion of the agon of influence.  James writes in Pragmatism,

The history of philosophy [and poetry] is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments[…]Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries, when philosophizing, to sink the fact of his temperament.  Temperament is not conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusion.  Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. (8-9)

And Bloom, whose lifework might be said to be involved with developing a thickly pataphysical and Freudian account of the process of metaphoric redescription, writes (calling redescription “revisionism”),

Poetic Influence – when it involves two strong, authentic poets, – always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction [redescribing] that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretationThe history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist. (30)

The notion of redescription thus allows us to somehow hold in our minds the paradox that there is no precedent for a Shakespeare, a Whitman, or an Ashbery, just as there is no Shakespeare, Whitman or Ashbery without the tradition they inherited.  The same can be said of other world-changers, figures like Einstein or a Darwin; or as Rorty writes,

Hobbes did not have theological arguments against Dante’s world-picture; Kant had only a very bad scientific argument for the phenomenal character of science; Nietzsche and James did not have epistemological arguments for pragmatism.  Each of these thinkers presented us with a new form of intellectual life, and asked us to compare its advantages with the old. (qtd. in Voparil 35)

But redescription, as Voparil points out, is not just a “method of inquiry”: citing Rorty, he writes, “’speaking differently, rather than arguing well,’ on [Rorty’s] view is ‘the chief instrument of cultural change.’ In a word, redescription is political; redescriptions have the power to change our minds” (35).   Here is Rorty, writing about redescription in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behavior, for example, the adoption of new scientific equipment or new social institutions. (9)

An awareness of this method is an awareness, Rorty might say, of the contingency of language –  that language has no intrinsic nature – and therefore of “a picture of intellectual and moral progress as a history of increasingly useful metaphors rather than of increasing understanding of how things really are” (Contingency 9).

III.

            We find this sentiment – that intellectual and moral progress happens as a result of new vocabularies replacing old vocabularies – articulated over and over in Ashbery’s poetry.  In fact, I would hazard the argument that, in the terms of William James, metaphoric redescription is in Ashbery’s “voluntary thinking” a “topic or subject about which all the members of the thought involve” (259).  James goes on to write in his Principles that

Half the time this topic is a problem, a gap we cannot yet will with a definite picture, word, or phrase, but which, in the manner described some time back, influences us in an intensively active and determinate psychic way.  Whatever may be the images and phrases that pass before us, we feel their relation to this aching gap.  To fill it up is our thought’s destiny.  Some bring us nearer to that consummation.  Some the gap negates as quite irrelevant.  Each swims in a felt fringe of relations of which the aforesaid gap is the term.  Or instead of a definite gap we may merely carry a mood of interest about with us.  Then, however vague the mood, it will still act in the same way, throwing a mantle of felt affinity over such representations, entering the mind, as suits it, and tingeing with the feeling of tediousness or discord all those with which it has no concern.  (259)

Again, notice how James, through his own metaphoric redescription, enlarges our understanding about what our individual interests mean, how they feel, how they operate within the idiosyncratic consciousness that forms the matrix of our deeply private selves.  This is exactly what Ashbery achieves in his greatest works, for his poems make redescription their content, even as their form and process enact redescription as their primary way of unfolding.

Metaphoric redescription is in Ashbery’s earliest “self-portrait” in Some Trees, in “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” where he writes,

Still, as the loveliest feelings

Must soon find words, and these, yes,
Displace them, so I am not wrong
In calling this comic version of myself
The true one. (14)

It’s in “Illustration,” also in Some Trees:

Much that is beautiful must be discarded
So that we may resemble a taller

Impression of ourselves.  (25)

The sense of the new replacing the old can be found in The Tennis Court Oath, in “White Roses”:

So put away the book,
The flowers you were keeping to give someone:
Only the white, tremendous foam of the street has any importance,
The new white flowers that are beginning to shoot up about now.  (66)

And the sense of the contingency of language can be found at the opening of “A Last World”:

These wonderful things
Were planted on the surface of a round mind that was to become our present time.
The mark of things belongs to someone
But if that somebody was wise
Then the whole of things might be different
From what it was thought to be in the beginning, before an angel bandaged the field glasses.  (83)

We find the sentiment that there are no neutral starting points for thought in “The Eccliast” in Rivers and Mountains: “There was no life you could live out to it end / And no attitude which, in the end, would save you” (135).  And perhaps one of the most famous of Ashbery’s “utterances” in terms of new vocabularies replacing old vocabularies can be found in “Clepsydra,” in a passage which reads,

Each moment
Of utterance is the true one; likewise none are true,
Only is the bounding from air to air, a serpentine
Gesture which hides the truth behind a congruent
Message, the way air hides the sky, is, in fact,
Tearing it limb from limb this very moment:  (140)

But these are only fragments; and what we find, when reading through Ashbery’s ouvre, is that these are not isolated incidents, but part of a larger pragmatic temperament that shapes the poems in such a way as to suggest, in the unfolding of the poem’s inner logic, the redescription of what it means to be alive through a new vocabulary replacing an old vocabulary.

Quickly, What was the old vocabulary?  That depends on the critic.  Bloom would say Stevens and Whitman; Ben Hickman would say the English tradition; David Herd cites Randall Jarrell’s description of Robert Lowell’s poetry as

the coiling violence of its rhetoric, the harsh and stubborn intensity that accompanies all its verbs and verbals, the clustering stresses learned from accentual verse, come from a man contracting every muscle, grinding his teeth together till his shut eyes ache.  (qtd. in Herd 33)

Herd goes on to write that,

The way Ashbery, along with O’Hara and Koch, solved the problem of not being Lowell was by reading widely in pursuit of alternatives, revitalizing American poetry as they did so – and in the time-honoured fashion of Whitman, Eliot, Pound and Stevens – by absorbing influences from elsewhere, France and Russia in particular.  (35)

It does not concern my study here to delve too deeply into the impact of the French and Russian influences on Ashbery, as this has been chronicled elsewhere, especially in the work of Herd in regards to Pasternak’s influence on Ashbery.  But I do want to stress that Ashbery is almost abnormally preoccupied with change, with what progress might mean, with the way in which change and progress and difference happen through metaphorically redescribing the world.  To look at this issue more closely will require closer readings of the poems throughout his oeuvre.   For the sake of this essay, I will be focusing on Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees.

IV.

            If the majority of Ashbery’s work is concerned with the way in which the future, like a horizon, spreads out before us, (though we do not know which direction it will take us in), then we might say that each of his books presents various strategies for conveying this feeling to us aesthetically.  In Some Trees, as Catherine Imbriglio has pointed out – though in the context of “closeted spaces” as opposed to the “revelation not yet produced” – this feeling is often transmitted via the notion of reticence, silence, and secretiveness – or, as David Shoptaw writes, “Some Trees is as remarkable for it excludes or slights as for what it represents” (19).  Since we don’t know what the future will bring, it follows that we must be, to some extent, reticent, silent or secretive – reticent, because we don’t know what will happen, and therefore do not want to overstep our boundaries, not necessarily in a fearful or quietist way, but certainly in a vigilant way; silent, because perhaps in our silence we may become more attentive to what is about to happen; and secretive, the etymology of which suggests a hiddenness, and therefore an awareness that the future itself is secret, is hidden, is somehow magically undisclosed.  This hiddenness has less to do with the cryptic way in which Some Trees “encodes a gay network of friends circulating among enemies and possible informants” (Shoptaw 20), and more with the cryptic nature of the future itself.  Thus we read, in “Two Scenes,” (a title that itself betrays a reticence about being too specific, about naming; as Shoptaw points out, “nearly half [of the poems in Some Trees] indicate the form or mode of their poem” (19)):

I.

We see us as we truly behave:
From every corner comes a distinctive offering.
The train comes bearing joy;
The sparks it strikes illuminate the table.
Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny.
For long we hadn’t heard so much news, such noise.
The way was warm and pleasant.
“We see you in your hair,
Air resting around the tips of mountains.”  (3)

For a long time I have wondered about the first line of the first poem in Ashbery’s first published collection: “We see us as we truly behave”.  It troubles me, because Ashbery strikes me as such an anti-essentialist, an anti-foundationalist, a la Rorty, who would therefore be uncomfortable with notions such as Truth or a monolithically true perception.  Therefore, I do not read the line as Imbriglio does, as “one totalizing visionary moment,” such a phrase being, as I deem it, an unhelpful oxymoron, as a visionary moment, according to Ashbery, would not and cannot be totalizing (279).  I’d like to suggest that we posit that “to see us as we truly behave” is a way of saying, “when we are oriented towards the future, wondering what will happen to us, then we can “see us as we truly behave”, as most people are acting in such ways that suggest they are aware of their future and are making decisions in the present to realize what they hope for in the future.  Going along with this interpretation – which implies that, even if we are oriented towards the future, we do not and cannot know what it will bring – is a sense of child-like wonder and magic in the poem, an almost forced naiveté, an enormous Joseph Cornell-like innocence.  “From every corner comes a distinctive offering” we hear, and “The train comes bearing joy; / The sparks it strikes illuminate the table”.  Furthermore, “Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny”, and “For long we hadn’t heard so much new, such noise.”  Each line works with the lines before and after to create a tapestry of novelty, of exciting things occurring which are hard to place.  The notion is repeated in the second stanza, in which we read,

This is perhaps a day of general honesty
Without example in the world’s history
Though the fumes are not of a singular authority
And indeed are dry as poverty.  (3)

Ashbery is calling our attention to the unprecedentedness of the future, and he is conveying this notion to us through language that redescribes this feeling in a new way.  The poem ends, “As laughing cadets say, “In the evening / Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is.”  I do not read this line as suspiciously as Imbriglio does, as signifying a secrecy necessary because of Ashbery’s homosexuality, although I do find such a reading compelling.  Nor do I read the poem, as Marjorie Perloff does, as a kind of fantastical polyphony of dream-logic – i.e. “Not what one dreams but how – this is Ashbery’s subject” (252).  Again, Ashbery’s poems do suggest, as Perloff has written, the logic of a dream; but here it is a matter of emphasis; and I wish to emphasize that his poems also suggest, with a florabundance rarely exhibited, the multifariousness of conscious lived experience reflecting on the future.  (Of course, this reflecting on the future is also a kind of dreaming; and in that sense my argument dovetails with Perloff’s.)  The evening can be interpreted, then, not as a metonym for dreams, nor as a metaphor for a pernicious shadowy presence of homophobia, but rather as a trope for the future, when the darkness suggests a wide-openness, commensurate with the sublime expansiveness of contemplating a future that is already somehow happening, all the time, though in some ways unbeknownst to us.

We find this same reticence, secretiveness and silence evident in “Popular Songs,” which ends,

There is no way to prevent this
Or the expectation of disappointment.
All are aware, some carry a secret
Better, of hands emulating deeds
Of days untrustworthy.  But these may decide.
The face extended its sorrowing light
Far out over them.  And now silent as a group
The actors prepare their first decline.  (4)

Here, we might say that “the face” is a trope for evening, for the horizon of the future, for it is a metaphor with, again, a certain wide-openness, a vastness that suggests the power of memory, feeling, imagination.  (“Perhaps we ought to feel with more imagination” Ashbery writes later, in “The Recent Past” (136)).   There is no way to prevent “this” – perhaps a pronoun referring, in its ambiguousness, to the ambiguity of the future – just as there is no way to live a life without disappointment.  Everyone is aware of the powerful dangerous imminence of the future, but some, as Ashbery writes, “carry a secret / Better,” perhaps implying that for some, this awareness leads to powerful creations.  But why the metaphor of the theater and acting in the last line?  What does this calling our attention to artifice have to do with an awareness of the imminence of the future?  Perhaps our very secretiveness makes us actors and actresses, acting a certain way on the surface, though all the time we are “nursing some private project” (Ashbery 125).

Ashbery’s reticence does not only manifest itself in lines that directly refer to the word “reticent,” such as the end of “As One Put Drunk Into a Packet-Boat,” where we read the oft-cited, “But night, the reserved, the reticent, always gives more than it takes” (428).  Reticence is part of his overall strategy, as Imbriglio points out, and can be found in his willingness to supply us with details of a narrative, combined with his unwillingness to fill out these details into some kind of totalized story.  We see this reticence about narrative in “Popular Songs,” a reticence about filling in the gaps, or the way in which gaps are filled; and we also find it in “A Boy,” a poem whose suggestiveness is far more powerful than its completeness.  We also find it in “Album Leaf,” where Ashbery asks three questions –

What can we achieve, aspiring?
And what, aspiring, can we achieve?

What can the rain that fell
All day on the grounds
And the bingo tables?  (12)

without directly answering them.  Even in a poem like “The Instruction Manual,” where the narrative we are given, the picture of the world, feels somewhat complete, the poem is written in a tone of such ferocious irony that it is very difficult to read the overall picture of the poem as in a way a serious attempt at capturing totality.  We might even say that Ashbery’s reticence plays into the astonishment of his images, for what makes Ashbery’s images so dazzling is their imaginative unexpectedness, their visionary unprecedented-ness, which seem to be the reward for being reticent, for waiting, and therefore exhibit the other side of reticence, which is boldness, courage, the willingness to adventure, to manifest in the greatest possible way the beauty of one’s own idiosyncratic character.

This reticence, which translates at times into the shocking novelty of Ashbery’s images, can be found in a wonderfully memorable way through Ashbery’s “The Picture of J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” a poem that begins with an epigraph from Pasternak that reads, “He was spoilt from childhood by the future, which he mastered early and apparently without great difficulty” (13).  “Picture” is divided into three sections, and the first one begins,

Darkness falls like a wet sponge
And Dick gives Genevieve a swift punch
In the pajamas.  “Aroint thee, witch.”
Her tongue from previous ecstasy
Releases thoughts like little hats.

“He clap’d me first during the eclipse.
Afterwards I noted his manner
Much altered.  But he sending
At that time certain handsome jewels
I durst not seem to take offence.”

In a far recess of summer
Monks are playing soccer.  (13)

The first stanza oscillates between images of reticence, wonder, and silence, combined with a cartoonish form of violence.  Genevieve, who appears like a cartoon character, is punched “in the pajamas,” yet she is so taken by some “previous ecstasy” that she “releases thoughts” (assumed to be either words or cartoonish thought boxes) “like little hats.”  Then Genevieve speaks, and mentions another trope for the future, an eclipse (perhaps the “darkness [falling] like a wet sponge”); a change in behavior on the part of Dick; and then a silence on Genevieve’s part about being punched.  After we hear that Genevieve exhibits her own style of reticence, perhaps out of wonder at the “handsome jewels” given to her, we hear that “In a far recess of summer / Monks are playing soccer.”  The images are juxtaposed so strangely and suddenly, there is a hilarious absurdity of the poem that seems to muffle the fact that the poem is also exorbitantly silent and almost abnormally reticent.  For what better way of expressing unexpected silence than the implacable image of monks “in a far recess of summer” playing soccer?

The second stanza then takes these themes of reticence, wonder, and silence, along with the tonality and modality of cartoon violence, and changes into a meditation on re-description (“So far is goodness a mere memory / Or naming of recent scenes of badness”) which varies with a tonality and modality of fantasy (“as dirty handmaidens / To some transparent witch, will dream / of a white hero’s subtle wooing, / and time shall force a gift on each”).  This makes sense philosophically, for a radical orientation towards the future will carry with it an emphasis on the imagination, since the future itself (“moral and intellectual progress”) is largely a product, Rorty might say, of what we imagine in the present.  Yet a radical awareness of the future also has its costs, which we find out in the third stanza, where Ashbery’s philosophy of “acceping // Everything, taking nothing” seems to lead to an almost morbid trauma, where silence and revelation, like Elizabeth Bishop’s experience in “In the Waiting Room,” take on traumatic hues.  In this situation, Ashbery imagines his past self as a “pale and gigantic fungus,” perhaps a metaphor for a certain kind of sickliness owing to a constant vigilance pertaining to what may come next.  Yet the poem ends on a note of re-description again, where “only in the light of lost words / Can we imagine our rewards.”  This suggests that only as new vocabularies replace old vocabularies (“lost words”), can we begin to imagine our aspirations and what these aspirations might lead to.

Shoptaw reads this ending differently.  He writes,

Virtue, so the saying goes, is its own reward.  For Ashbery, however, virtue is rewarded only retroactively, in the fame of published poems in which the past is irrevocably lost and recaptured: “And only in the light of lost words / Can we imagine our rewards.”  As Proust says, in what becomes another encrypted moral for “Picture,” “the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.”  (28)

Yet I cannot help but feel that the locus of meaning for the last phrase in the poem pivots around the meaning of “lost,” which Shoptaw seems to interpret as something missing or absent that consequently produces nostalgia in the speaker, a nostalgia that allows the speaker to create or imagine a poem out of its longing.  It’s really a matter of emphasis.  Shoptaw does, importantly, draw our attention to the fact that Ashbery is not only a poet concerned with the future, but also one fascinated by nostalgia, by the past.  Yet for all Ashbery’s interest in these matters, the ending of “J.A” has less do with nostalgia (“the light of lost words”) and more to do with dead metaphors (“the light of lost words”), which is to say, more to do with an emphasis on imagination than memory.  I also wish to add to David Herd’s potent interpretation of “J.A.,” when he writes of the poem as “the self-conscious product of the various influences that constitute its aesthetic background” (45).  Yes, the poem is that, but it is more as well: a meditation on the influences that helped to create it, as well as a meditation on the contingency of language itself, whereby virtue can be re-described as “stubbornness,” and a “comic version” of oneself can be designated (with irony) the “true one.”  Perhaps our best interpretation of this ending comes from James Longenbach, who writes, “’Truth’ is not undermined by these realizations; it is reconceived [or re-described] by the adult Ashbery as a contingent quality even as his former self, frozen in the photograph, continues to think of it as permanent and unchanging” (92, my italics).

What is clear from all this is that pragmatism, as a philosophy oriented towards the future, and therefore towards an undisclosed, disclosing open-endedness, can be used in helpful ways to interpret the challenging but rewarding poetry of Ashbery.  Thinkers like William James and Richard Rorty, as well as John Dewey, must be used to help us understand Ashbery’s important, influential, amazing poetics.  For as Ashbery’s ouvre develops, we find new strategies, new genres, new ways of discussing the aesthetic power of the “revelations not yet produced.”  And the more we can understand how Ashbery helps us to reach this remarkable pragmatist sublime, the more we can begin to understand what Borges called the “perhaps, the aesthetic reality,” (though one cannot help but feel that Ashbery would change this to “perhaps, an aesthetic reality”).

Works Cited

Ashbery, John. Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987. New York: Library of America, 2008. Print.

Bloom, Harold.  The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry.  London: Oxford UP, 1975.  Print.

Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry.  New York: Palgrave, 2000.  Print.

Hubbard, Will.  “In Which We Enter the Double Dream of Spring.”  This Recording.com  27 April 2008.  Web.  10 May. 2013.

Imbriglio, Catherine.  “’Our Days Put on Such Reticence’: The Rhetoric of the Closet in John Ashbery’s Some Trees.”  Contemporary Literature 26. 2 (1995): 249 – 288.  Print.

James, William.  The Principles of Psychology, Volume One.  New York: Dover Publications, 1950.  Print.

James, William.  Pragmatism and Other Writings.  New York: Penguin Books, 2000.  Print.

Leypoldt, Gunter.  “Uses of Metaphor: Richard Rorty’s Literary Criticism and the Poetics of World-Making.”  New Literary History 39.1 (2008): 145 – 163.  Print.

Longenbach, James.  Modern Poetry After Modernism.  New York: Oxford UP, 1997.  Print.

McClelland, Ken.  “John Dewey and Richard Rorty: Qualitative Starting Points.”  Transactions of the Charles S. Pierce Society 44.3 (2008): 412 – 445.  Print.

McClelland, Kenneth A.  “Opening Truth to Imagination: The Pragmatism of John Dewey and Richard Rorty.”  Diss.  Brock University, 2006.  Print.

Perloff, Marjorie.  The Poetics of Indeterminacy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981. Print.

Rorty, Richard.  Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.  New York: Cambridge UP, 2009.  Print.

Shoptaw, John.  On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.  Print.

Chrisotpher Voparil and Richard Bernstein (ed.).  The Rorty Reader.  Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.  2010.

Watkin, William.  In the Process of Poetry The New York School and the Avant-Garde.  London: Associated University Presses, 2001.  Print.

LMB: You recently defended – for lack of a better word – the use of melodrama in poetics. Why do you think people are so uncomfortable with it?

CF: It’s funny, because I don’t think melodrama itself is the problem; think, for example, of the melodramatics in Keats, in Eliot, in Donne – the first stanza of The Good Morrow is as dramatic as any Lana Del Rey song or Minnis poem. I think the real issue is that people have a problem with feminine melodramatics; it’s why Plath became the poster child for some crass concept of Confessionalism (even though another melodramatic man, Robert Lowell, is really responsible for that whole mess) in spite of the fact that she was a master craftsman and genius of the literary costume.

So, I think it’s a gendered issue more than a simple one of dramatic/not-dramatic. The “problem” with girly melodrama in contemporary poetry has to do less with the gesture and more with the thing against which the dramatic girl or queer of female-identified poet is reacting against. Look back to Freud’s case study of Dora, the classic hysteric: her fits of melodrama made people uncomfortable because it forced them to acknowledge some previous hurt or wrongdoing. It’s easier for people to discount the dramatic female voice in literature as a substanceless performance rather than actually dealing with the issues that would cause someone, say, to want to put together something like Marie Calloway’s Google Docs, or Joyelle McSweeney’s very bratty and dramatic Percussion Grenade – which is all about acting out, being loud, wearing costumes, and throwing a tantrum.

LMB: MY LIFE IS A MOVIE – the title itself – is a good bit melodramatic. People seem to be afraid of too many details; I’ve been told myself that “sparse” is good. Less isn’t more, to me, though. In fact, I think melodrama goes a long way. You detail your work extravagantly; I feel like I am getting wasted and then having my heart ripped out. Did you write this book for you, or for the world?

CF: It is dramatic, and intentionally so. In a lot of ways, this was a way for me to work through the issues I have/had with the label of Confessionalism; A lot of the things in MLIAM actually happened, and that’s why I chose the title. The scene with the Austrian welder and getting lost at Ground Zero, and there’s a bit where a jogger gets hit by a car; I workshopped an early version of this and someone actually said that the getting hit by a car thing felt too contrived and overtly melodramatic, that it seemed as though I had put it there for shock value.

The other thing that’s important to note is that MLIAM came directly out of the co-morbid phenomena of reality TV and child actors. My mom and sister had just started filming Dance Moms: Miami, and I had shot two episodes with them and felt really conflicted about it. I was a professional actress for like the first eleven years of my life; I used to be really ashamed, and kept it secret. In graduate school I decided to “come out” as a former child actress when Johannes [Goransson] made us write these manifestoes in my first graduate workshop, and for the first time I allowed myself to acknowledge how intensely that experience (I mean, it was literally half of my life, at the time) affected my poetics.

Growing up in the film and television industry gave me a really different way of thinking about ideas of framing, narrative, truth, and performativity, I think, and in MLIAM I try to give the reader a sense of what it’s like to live within or in the aftermath of that experience.


LMB: You’ve created The Bratty Poets Series. Is there a certain brattiness in all poets that goes unidentified that you’d like to showcase?

CF: Absolutely, and that’s why I started the series – which is less a “Series” in the traditional sense and more a sort of watering hole around which people might gather when they’re feeling a particular variety of thirst. The thing about brattiness is that it’s sporadic, irrational, sometimes childish, and always right. It has an aesthetic but it also doesn’t exclude any particular aesthetic or camp, it’s cliquey but it’s a quality of every clique, by nature. The Bratty Poets Series, more than anything else, is a way to start breaking down the whole “these cool kids over here, those cool kids over there, these aging hipsters hanging out in Brooklyn, those pretentious hipsters in the Academy” quality of “the scene,” such as it is. It’s a nicely decorated padded room in which poets are totally allowed to have a fit.

LMB: Your book trailer is touchy. In it, I say that men don’t only love women for their breasts, but it’s sure a reason. Why did you choose to record your friends, and how does this relate to MY LIFE IS A MOVIE, aside from the obvious?

CF: MLIAM has two definable locations – the City and the Old West. It’s never really clear which is the real and which is the sur-real, because they’re generally interchangeable terms in this movie. When I moved back to New York this summer I was staying with different friends, all of them poets, I was out of school for the first time in almost ten years, I had one suitcase and a guitar, and I felt this really intense sense of being non-locatable. So the footage I shot during those first weeks when I was back in the City and I was really emotionally in shambles for various reasons were in some ways an effort to create for myself a sense of reality; this is my place, these are my people.

The first video I took was of a poet friend sitting on her couch, on which I was sleeping at the time, smoking a cigarette and crying and talking about how many times she had tried to quit smoking. It was very early in the morning, and all anyone had done so far that day in that apartment was write poems and smoke cigarettes, and the light was really perfect and her sadness was so real and beautiful and happening right then; it was like when you see your favorite painting for the first time and want to keep it with you forever. I had an iPhone and there was this gorgeous thing happening front of me and I thought, people should have access to this. Which is the same thought that’s really at the heart of MLIAM.

LMB: If your poetry were any pop-star, who would it be?

CF: Alanis Morisette. She’s such a brat, and very angsty and melodramatic. She’s also a brilliantly talented technical musician. People tend to not see the latter and just think of her as that heartbroken 90s girl who screams, but she’s way more than that. And my favorite Alanis Morisette song is Unsent, which is absolutely no one’s favorite Alanis Morisette song. I was eight when it came out, and it was and is very relevant to my life.

LMB: We both just received our MFAs in poetry. There is a lot of talk about uber-Masters and medieval practices and sheer wastes of money. What are your experiences with the system?

CF: I’m probably the wrong person to ask about this, because I believe fully in the ideas of Poetic Lineage, the tradition of an apprentice being shepherded along by a Master, and Feudalistic economies in general. I write about it in an essay on my blog called FEUDALISM IS RAD, and you performed the role of the Idol in my play, EVERYBODY, LET’S BELIEVE IN THIS IMAGINARY CURRENCY at The Bowery Poetry Club last summer, which was essentially “about” the whole issue of the MFA economy. As far as the MFA itself goes, there are a two things I was told by the person who taught me as an undergrad, and these are some of my personal ultimate truths: don’t pay money to get an MFA, and don’t get an MFA for any other reason than the luxury of two (or three) years during which you have no obligation except to your work.

That being said, once I got to my MFA program (which was amazing, by the way, and certainly not for everyone but I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere else) I got very angsty and resentful of the whole thing. I wrote this long allegorical poem called The Princess and The Ivory Tower, which was a very bratty treatise on what I perceived as the injustices of being a young female in a fundamentally broken Academia, during my first semester. That poem really idealizes the sort of Grand Pastoral experience of learning about poetry, which is an exaggeration of my experience as an undergrad, as antithetical to the sorts of masturbatory arguments that can happen in a hyper-theorized context. In retrospect, I’m really glad that such places exist so that arguments, in general, can happen. They need not be “productive,” they need only to continue.

LMB: You write, “I feel so sincere it makes for bad poems” in MY LIFE IS A MOVIE. How does any good poet balance sincerity with craft, and how do you translate the bigness of life into a poem?

CF: That’s the Big Question, isn’t it? Especially with all of the “New Sincerity” vomit all over the internet (to which I’ve admittedly contributed a few bucketfuls). During my aforementioned Grand Pastoral upbringing, my teacher brought two irises into his office when we met to discuss my poem one morning: one was a wild iris, and the other was a hothouse iris. They were both formally excellent examples of an iris, but one had certainly been bred/crafted to have a quality of showiness, whereas the other had more or less just grown. I think the lesson he meant to teach me that day was about the difference between a public and a private poem, but it seems to apply to the sincerity argument, too. Is the hothouse iris less of an iris; is the wild iris less beautiful?

LMB: Your life/poems is/are a Lynch film. Which one?

CF: Actually, I totally can’t watch David Lynch films. And I don’t like Twin Peaks. I’ve tried, and I just can’t – but I get why other people are into it. My life/poems are a Meg Ryan romantic comedy, or one of those movies in which Drew Barrymore fucks everything up and still gets the boy.

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Carina Finn is a poet, playwright, and multimedia artist. She is the author of I HEART MARLON BRANDO, which was published in a limited screenprint edition in 2010 by Wheelchair Party Press. Her play, EVERYBODY, LET’S BELIEVE IN THIS IMAGINARY CURRENCY, premiered at The Bowery Poetry Club, and THIRTEEN WAYS OF BREAKING was workshopped and premiered thanks to the generosity of the Film, Television, & Theatre department at The University of Notre Dame. She a graduate of Sweet Briar College, has an MFA in poetry from Notre Dame, lives in New York City, and blogs at www.ladyblogblah.wordpress.com

Birds of Lace is a feminist press founded & edited by Gina Abelkop. Born in 2005 and currently based in Berkeley, CA, Birds of Lace publishes the literary and arts journal Finery as well as chapbooks by emerging writers. Recent releases include Jason Helm’s Fetish, Carrie Murphy’s Meet the Lavenders, Leon Baham’s Ponyboy Sigh, and Anna Joy Springer’s debut novella The Birdwisher.

ORDER CARINA FINN’S MY LIFE IS A MOVIE

NOTE: Read about THEthe’s collaboration with the Red Room Company here.

Across Australia, each state, city, suburb and street autonomously divides itself into thousands of clubs and societies. Sport, politics, art, craft, collectors: people gather voluntarily, outside the confines of their immediate geography, social class or profession. They gather around a shared passion. As such, clubs and societies are sites of sharing: sharing of knowledge, stories, skills and resources.

Within these shared circles, language takes on a special role. Since members don’t have to articulate themselves for a general audience, vernacular becomes increasingly specialised. Often the assumed knowledge that lies within any given statement is so huge that, to an outsider, conversation at a club meeting would seem like a foreign language. For poetry, these distinctive argots provide fertile fields for experimentation, since every unique language has the potential to inform its own unique poetics.

The Red Room Company (RRC) set out to explore this terrain in 2011 through our major project, Clubs and Societies. We even set up our own Clubhouse in The Rocks in Sydney, complete with bunting, dartboard and our own selection of club records. There, we played host to clubs and visiting poets alike. We also produced an exclusive club pack for new members, with specially designed membership pins (one of the pleasures of being in a club is allowing oneself to get a little obsessive over things…).

The project worked by pairing up 15 poets from across Australia with 15 diverse clubs and societies. Each poet and their club was handpicked by RRC Artistic Director – and Club President – Johanna Featherstone. Poets were chosen both for the quality of their work, as well as their potential to creatively engage with their host club as a kind of Club Poet Laureate.

Poets were asked to open their practice to the experience as much as possible, and we encouraged experimentation and a free interpretation of the notion of ‘poetry’. In some cases, the club’s influence is discernible not only in the poem’s content, but also in its form. Kit Brookman, for example, paired with the Astronomical Society of NSW, collected smaller, imagistic poems–little vignettes – like the singular view through a telescope of a section of night sky. Ali Alizadeh, on the other hand, responded to the lecture-based Existentialist Society with a longer, discursive, almost essayistic poem. Meanwhile, Michael Giacometti, working with the Central Australian Bushwalkers, collected over 20 short poems and haikus, quickly scribbled at breaks along the track: evocations, often humorous, of exhaustion and thirst through the middle of Australia.

Over the next month we’ll present a selection of the commissioned poems, as well as snippets from a research report compiled by Jacinta van den Berg, which investigated links between poetry and clubs in Australia. Within these works, poets represent the customs of clubs in super close-up, like cultures in a petri dish. In contrast, the research project zooms out, considering the role clubs and societies play in the broader social picture, and how that role is comparable (or incomparable) to poetry’s. We hope that readers, whether poets, club members, both or neither, enjoy this selection.

A limited-edition Clubs and Societies publication is also available from www.redroomcompany.org.

When I’m asked about poetry in Chicago, I’m inclined to reply with the old Quaker response: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But, all I really mean is that Chicago is distinct in its poetics because there is no system, no unifying center that explains its existence.

Chaos is the key to understanding how Chicago’s poets function. We don’t have a school here, nor a consistent, essential aesthetic. As a geographical center of the country, Chicago inevitably absorbs everything outside and assimilates the characteristics of visitors and the new locals.

Some are produced by MFA programs and the academy. Others still listen for Spicer-ian Martians are trying to communicate through us. And still, there are those who radiate in between. Either way, poetry is occurring here.

Whether at Danny’s Pub, Myopic Books, an obscure performance space in Humboldt Park, or a small dingy bar with a busted microphone and our third scotch and soda, we are drifting and crashing. But not indiscriminately. We are fine with chaos. Our canon is illimitable. It’s our impulse to constantly add, never to subtract. Poetry in Chicago is not something stable. We are a melting commune. Most of us are, as the Gospel of Thomas declares, passers-by. Constant travelers dripping ink onto the concrete of first and only editions, our solitary iterations now rare treasures to be found in the racks and corridors of the countless independent bookstores. No, you can’t count on us.

We are a lonely city in a way others aren’t. I’ve already mentioned there is no school. Chicago poets operate more in cliques than in a over-arching school. And these cliques are fluid. The cliques are often determined by identifying precedents and transforming/blending the aesthetics of the past avant-gardists and the projective politics of Now. We are bastard children of everything past, present, and future.

Facebook, needless to say, has provided a lot of networking for poets in the city. Since there are several venues with different aesthetic concerns, and various locations, it seems necessary to use such an electronic forum to expand the communication between poets and their performative space. I moved here in 2009 and the first place I found online was Myopic Books. I kept up with the schedule waiting for a familiar name. Michael Bernstein was the first in line. Although we hadn’t met personally yet, he’d published a few poems in his magazine Pinstripe Fedora that would go on to be included in my first chapbook some months later. I had to meet the man.

I showed up at Myopic Books around 6:30. I wanted to be able to exchange a few live words with Bernstein. Of course, working off profile pictures is a dubious way to identify someone. I made a lucky guess and did get to speak with Michael a little. Pleasantries, mostly. It’s difficult to move beyond those when you’re relationship with someone is completely defined by the Web. The reader before him was Nick Demske, a Wisconsin-ite who makes frequent visits to Chicago. Nick Demske, his award-winning book from Fence Press, had not been published yet and I’d never heard of him. Demske’s lines were long and acrobatic, bending the boundaries between cultural obscenity and flowing lyricism. Bernstein’s were short, terse, and filled with surreal dread. Both poets explode with infinite reference and anxious projection. The diversity of the reading is a trademark element of events at Myopic. You go to see one poet you know and end up hearing one or two you don’t, reaping the benefits of curious participation. One is tempted to make comparisons, but any comparison I could make doesn’t quite fit, since Myopic seems to be synonymous with “unique in its own world and vision.”

And yet I digress, this is the night where my career as a poet changed. The curator of Myopic, Larry Sawyer, is truly a committed veteran of poetry in this city if there is such a thing. He overheard my name after the reading and called out:

“I heard the name ‘Connor.’ Is he here?”

I raised my hand.

“I’ll answer your e-mail this week.” He was in a rush, but I knew he was genuine.

Weeks later, I read alongside Philip Jenks.

Larry’s commitment to poetry is unparalleled in any scene. After my initial email, he invited me to read four times, even inviting me to host one reading. I reviewed his book, Unable to Fully California in Another Chicago Magazine. He exposed me to the depths of surrealism and showed me the limits of our own language as a vehicle of expression. For Larry, poetry is not a method of egotism, but a explosion of voices that can be organized into a revolutionary diction. Larry doesn’t force his poems onto a soapbox, but realizes Walter Benjamin’s conception of surrealism as the disruption of bourgeois logic as poetry’s true revolutionary potential.

Larry Sawyer showed me that the tradition of Myopic Books reading series was a long one. He had and has been involved for over a decade and has had poets of varying fame to read. Ron Silliman, Eileen Myles, Tony Triglio, David Trinidad, Gabriel Gudding, Bernadette Mayer, et al.; you name it, they’ve been there. And yet, he let us newbies read, those of us hopefuls who want to be poets. Myopic Books is certainly a go-to spot for me when it comes to poetry readings. Poetry to Larry Sawyer is not a question of achievement, but commitment. If there is a committed, centered Chicago poet, it is Larry. As a curator and promoter, he brings the audience’s focus into a special, intimate poetic communal experience.

At any reading in Chicago, it’s not likely that you’ll see two poets of an identical ilk reading in one night. It’s not intentional, but a poetry reading in Chicago is almost destined for diversity. This what makes poetry in Chicago so exhilarating and overwhelming, our multi-vocal drive. This is our unconscious focus, our journey without a destination.

Let’s move up to March—I believe—of 2011. Eileen Myles was here to promote Inferno, and Ed Roberson was the co-reader. The crowd is spread between the bar and dark back room cushions. In this dimly lit room, most of us on our second beer, second shot. I was on my third scotch thinking of invectives against Illinois smoking laws, watching luminous figures appear in the doorway. The readings at Danny’s are always scheduled at 7:30 but they rarely begin before 9. People linger into the increasingly packed crowd.

Roberson was first. His reading was dignified and still, clear and quiet, well-spoken and a little hard to hear. Contrast with NYC’s Myles, a poet whose work is clearly meant to be heard as well as read. In both Ed and Eileen’s cases, there was a sense of throbbing in the audience, throbbing from silence, then throbbing from the fascination of the New England-accented projection of poetic autobiography. The energy infinitely builds and explodes into fiery applause.

(On a side note: I bought Eileen’s new book and she signed it, misspelling my name in a way that has never felt so pleasant.)

Elsewhere, Chicago poets tend to find themselves in positions where they perform alongside musicians and other types of performance art. Like anywhere, we have to contend with the fact that many people find poetry readings fairly boring. In the latter part of summer 2011, I was on the road with Edwin Perry, JS Makkos, and Joseph Bienvenu, all of whom have had intimate connections with Chicago. Our final stop on our reading tour (Calendar of the Spectral was the title) was at the underground hit loft Ball Hall. I do confess, if you’re looking for a place where “art” is happening, stop by this space at your first possible convenience.

This reading was special in many ways. For one, it was the last reading we did as a group on the tour. Makkos and Bienvenu would go on to do one last reading in Detroit while I and Perry had to split off. Perry to plan a tour with his band and I to fulfill teaching duties for a local Rogers Park summer school session. I had driven back from Cleveland alone to attend a faculty meeting. After a week and a half in a car together, we had a couple of days off from each other. When I arrived at Ball Hall, it was the first time I had been there. It was my understanding that my three counterparts had all experienced this strange little society on several occasions before. My experience with the Chicago poetry community was limited mostly to bookstores, bars, and the occasional art gallery. Throughout the tour, however, bookstores were a rarity in our choices of venue. We had almost exclusively read in bars and self-curated performance spaces.

Walking into Ball Hall the first time, I already knew this would be even more different than our past experiences. This was partly because I lived so close to this place and didn’t even know it existed. Sure, the art spaces on the East Coast were singular, strange, dreamlike communes of the summer, but this was local. This was personal.

This reading was very special because it may very well have been our largest crowd since Boston and was the second to final reading we did together. The reputation of Ball Hall as an epicenter of artistic performance alone had drawn disillusioned and creative youth of all ages to come see what we had produced, what we had to perform.

The highlight of the evening was our reading of a four-voice poem that we had composed on the road. When I say “on the road,” I mean that we actually wrote this poem while driving. Since I drove at least 90 per cent of the tour, I dictated my lines while I was driving. The first few performances of this poem were a few steps above disastrous, but this time a harmony shone through that we hadn’t seen yet. It was a Dada/Flarf coherence of goofiness and collision in which each of our distinct voices crashed, joked and, ultimately, cohered. Our time apart had given this poem a new life. Time does not finish a poem, but the temporal silence of its voices does allow for its organic growth. The originally Flarf-y humor of four voices shouting “fucking” in Reich-ian unison lost its humor and instead took on the memorial frustration of our lives together, however short that life was.

Our stretch does not stop with the city limits; we take advantage of our geography. We are inclusive of the suburbs, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan as well. Michael Czyzniejewski still travels into Chicago from Bowling Green to serve beer at Cubs games, and Bill Allegrezza still edits Moria. Lake Forest College is also a hotbed of innovative writing; Joshua Corey, Robert Archambeau and Davis Schneiderman still maintain the northern part of the state as a literary stronghold, with the college hosting a fantastic literary festival, as well as running the excellent &Now Press. Go just about a half hour further north and you’d be in Racine, where Fence Prize-winner Nick Demske runs the BONK! performance series at the local library, featuring not only great Chicago poets and artists but performers from all over. Francesco Levato founded a workshop group in 2011 called the Chicago School of Poetics, which offers a diverse array of courses and faculty devoted to the growth of poetry in the city. Yet, despite that, a consistent aesthetic will never emerge. Rather, new aesthetics will branch out infinitely, unlimited by any dogmatic constraint.

This is our strength, our boast. The visitors can’t help but see the schizophrenic variety of what it is to be a poet in this city. Our poetics of place are our relinquishment of a center, the lack of an essential location. We are the poets of many faces, bringers of both syntactic revolution and passive boredom, gazers between the silence of the pages’ white spaces among the monoliths of our piercing architecture. And yet, this is only a brief, highly selective description of what happens here. I’ve left out so much, but can only hope this has sparked your curiosity. So the chilled streets call to the arriving, curious traveler: Beware, Welcome, Look.

“They imagine a future by practicing it.”
– Michael Davidson, on the non-democratic and elitist writing communities

So, I just got back from attending my first &NOW Festival of New Writing in San Diego. Overall, I enjoyed the balance of panels celebrating experimentation and panels attempting to engage texts or movements more critically. I am writing to document my interactions with Johannes Göransson and Vanessa Place, not because I have a rigid plan to offer, but because we need to find ways to have such difficult and complex conversations, rather than tending to shy away from them feeling relatively justified in the sacred name of our pleasure. Poetry and poetics matter because words create the contours of what we can do.

1.

As the main standout, I really liked Johannes Göransson’s talk on the Lion King film and Raul Zurita where he said he was more interested in the artists who respond to evil or oppressive violence through pageantry or performance or even fun; rather than the traditional attempts artists usually make by asking audience members to see themselves from a critical distance as a result of the art experience. How could you not be intrigued by such a refreshing line of thinking?

But then a question started gnawing at me. I don’t like it when this happens; my heart starts to race; my palms begin to sweat. All this happens not just because I haven’t been formally trained to bounce my voice off of the back wall of the room but also because it means I have to ask the damn thing in public. The public commons is a funny thing. You can feel when a group of people is not interested in thinking critically. This is usually the case. After all, who isn’t mainly interested in hir own pleasure? If you had a butter knife, you could cut in two the public desire to be left alone with its celebrations.

Anyway, I raised my hand, warned that my question may seem moralistic, and asked the damned thing: what does it mean when evil becomes fun? What does it mean, as a goal, to meet totalitarian violence with violent (spectacular) art? How does evil (turned out by fascists like Pinochet, or in by artists like Zurita who had poured acid on his face as a metaphor for totalitarian oppression) not become a distraction or an act of mere entertainment? In order words, what happens when injustice becomes fun or a pageant of performing bodies?

Here are a few more questions that come to mind as I reflect: Can art, as a goal, be more than fun? Should art, as a goal, be more than a parade manifesting the gaudy possibilities of experience through the streets or through the halls of academia? What is the difference between a parade and a protest march? Is claiming the privilege to feel proud for existing as the thing that is possible to manifest the best that art can do or is art more imbedded in life than that?

2.

My other main learning moment at the &NOW Festival in San Diego in 2011 came during the panel I organized on the manifesto. Before I recount my recollection of the dialogue of this moment, I’ll frame how I envisioned the scope of the panel discussion. I’d hoped my event would change some minds and hearts about the received categories through which we usually experience the new. I’d hoped this event would challenge performers and listeners alike to reconsider received ideas about our association of the new as the good. Out of this discomfort, I’d hoped empathy and tolerance would grow since these practices have never been more needed than they are now, which of course is forever and in the future. 


The manifesto moment came and went in a blinding flash of bravado just about a century ago. Much given to mimesis, the manifesto wanted to show that not only art for art’s sake was possible, but that life for life’s sake was also possible. Why divide art from life? Who benefits by these divisions of labor? A little later, Walter Benjamin wondered: what is the new without the question of freedom, but mere fashion? What kinds of writing become possible after we stop trying to “make it the new”? How do you imagine your freedom? Was Andy Warhol doing a kind of social Jujitsu move on capitalism by removing his body from the art making process, or was he a just another sellout looking to make a buck?

I’d wanted to invite participants to use the has-been manifesto form to tell/show/perform the has-been idea of “make it new”? I’d intended for our brief statements of formal alarm to guide, convince, and convert us to the possibility of possibility in writing today. How can we imagine an affirmative postmodernism in the literary arts? I was curious to learn what would be our vision for the poetic future or for the future of poetry? How does the tone of the manifesto itself (us versus them) speak to the perpetual crises of form sparked by the death of the agent? (Why did the author die? How did multiculturalism kill the author? Well, the author cannot speak with authority because there are now multiple and valuable perspectives on what truth means.)

Such questions about the aesthetical and social commons rise out of my deep faith in skepticism and not out of a cynical presumption about the essence of the other. So, I was surprised when the normally composed Vanessa Place had an emotional explosion in response to my question. The very reason I had invited Vanessa Place was because of a certain vulnerability to the possible she demonstrated in responding to a question I had posed during the Q&A of the “Flarf and Conceptual Writing” panel at the AWP in Denver, 2010. My question was: “why does biography matter to “uncreative” writing?” She responded with what I took as genuine and unpracticed vulnerability: “I’m not sure that it does.” I’ve written more about the matter here.

The following is a recounting of this important dialectical (for me, anyway) conversation that I hope will continue and that others will join since hygienic objectivity has long been the dream of choice for some.

—start dialogue —

GT: Is progress, utopian visions, and an affirmative postmodernism possible anymore?

VP: NO! Postmodernism is over. We live in the age of Conceptualism which is characterized not by an inability to escape the text but by synchronicity. We need new language.

GT: What is a new way to say communism?

VP: [Rolling eyes; gesticulating with misanthropic enthusiasm.] What?!? I don’t even know what that means!

GT: [Temporarily stunned by Vanessa Place’s emotional deflection of the question, I have a flashback to my interactions with high school bullies who used emotion to gain the upper hand in tempo: someone from the audience speaks during this time and VP responds while calming down.]

VP: Each reader is responsible for the meaning she makes from the text or performance.

GT: I agree that we need new language. But we need to think of how we can be social together. We need a commons, we need a community. I agree with the subject-object ethics implicit in not presuming a certain effect on readers or audience. However, no matter how creatively we appropriate words from various contexts, the “I” that is doing such non-expression is still strung along by capital.

—end dialogue—

Again, the questions are part of an important discussion which requires courage to continue: how can the subject be happy and ethical in the information age? How might writers come to new and more inclusive language? How does emotion bolster and obfuscate reason? Where are the courage poets to continue the conversation (is one form or another) about how the individual writer can meet the plural other? This is not a call to arms. This is a call to fingers and words.

3.

I wrote the following two satirical texts in response to my experience with Vanessa Place at the &NOW Festival in San Diego in 2011. For more context, please see the official &NOW Festival blog where versions of these writings were first published.

I recognize the need for distraction during wartime and I hope this helps.

22. Conceptual writing is a distraction.
1. Fame is a clown.
19. It is good to be a clown, unless it is bad to be a clown.
5. We delete the individual.
19. We need a commons of selves.
7. You are being distracted from what you are. Stop it.
5. You must have reliable internet service to be a conceptual poet.
16. Bluster is not a good solution.
4. Don’t get hysterical.
26. Get hysterical.
3. Do you know of any fun appropriation techniques?
8. Patriarchy is not a good solution.
17. Your tone is precision guided expression.
3. Flatness is the new agency.
3. This time, it’s personal.
3. This is a distraction, by any means necessary.

————————————————-

We is a Word that Gives You Meaning

Is the possible still possible today? I don’t even know what you mean! Not as dream, but as a practice. To demonstrate the contradictions of Liberal Democratic capitalism, we occupy space and serve as an amplification organ. The beautiful social mess of the People’s Mic permits individual voices to heckle the authority of self expression. We call and respond to the future. We are a high school clique following our leader because she knows how to butter our bread. We are here because we want new words that will set us free from the limits set upon us by corporate imaginations. We is a word that gives our identity a filigree border, without which we don’t even know what you mean. I don’t even know what you mean!

We is a word that gives you meaning. Americans with “fuck you” money live in their “fuck you” houses up on the “fuck you” hill. Nonetheless, we may be the most utopian category of all. A blind faith in moral progress is the elephant in every stanza you enter. We question our fashionable obsession with the new because it distracts us from our role in alms-justice. Community is not something you can opt in or out of like some wise barbarian. The commons is inside of you expressing itself through every choice you make or refuse to make. We will not go primitive nor fall through the trapdoor of dreaming. We demand the possible, now!

The retrospective sayings of the mystic become the regurgitated maxims of the pedant.

The mystical experience is ineffable, by definition, and yet mystics are invariably compelled to write. What the mystic writes after the fact is not meant to be systematic, comprehensive, or even an accurate representation of his mysticism. But leave it to the gate keepers to ruin the words of another. Pendants pilfer from the mystic’s coffers and reduce those marvelous and contradictory emotions to dogmatic maxims.

A verbal articulation of an entirely non-verbal experience necessarily falls short. What pedants do to the mystic, they also do to the poet. In both cases, clinging to footnotes, journals, and excessive psychoanalysis, the original experience (mystic or poetic) is concealed within a labyrinth of pseudo-intellectual criticism.

An excellent poem appears simple in its complexity, and above all easy in its difficulty. A poem appearing strained or artificial (though it is regularly both) is a failure.

While we marvel at the final product, any thought of the artist is secondary to the immediate experience of excellence. There seems to be something wrong with what so many critics do: reconstructing the scaffolding around the living poem, presenting the sketches and precursory plans for it until the life of the poem is altogether extinguished.

The problem is not what kind of followers performs the investigation, but the mere fact that they are following and not being their own leaders.  Here the singular and spontaneous sayings of the sage are reduced to religion.

Sages like Confucius spoke not absolute maxims but rather what the unique moment demanded, never to be repeated.  King Solomon did not mean for every child to be cut in two, or even for any child to be cut in two. And this is what made him wise: knowing what the present moment demanded and answering its call. What pedantic followers do is corrupt the original spontaneity of saints and sages to magico-mechanical maxims, a readymade “cure” for any situation.

Joe Weil wrote about these asinine “keepers” of a poet’s legacy in his piece The Inward Soul: Dickinson and St. Theresa of Avila:

Dickinson’s gate keepers make me vomit. Her worshipers make me want to kick them in the shins….To look for evidence of her sexuality is like 19th-century scholars looking for historic proof of Jesus.

What Christians do now – conservative and liberal – is to obsess over historical fact and both ignore the admonition to unconditional Love. I hope Ananda Coomaraswamy proves right: “Most likely Christianity also in the near future will succeed in breaking the ‘entangling alliance’ of religion and history, from which the mystics have already long emerged. There cannot be an absolute truth which is not accessible to direct experience.” We do not need the mediation of history or criticism to encounter what is omnipresent.

The “gate keepers” of religion and of poetry are one and the same.  The pedantic critic is blind, leading others into a pit of his own creation. The pedant (since he cannot see) ensures that no one else can see. The critic gouges out the eyes of the other. Similarly, Jesus condemned the false knowledge of the Pharisees: “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.”

Followers soften the ferocious words of the ones they follow into palatable household sayings – comfortable, no longer feral, no longer dangerous, no longer potent.  Civilized critics attempt to tame the God/Beast in the poet, saint, or prophet. It is the domestication of the saints which gnaws at the heart of this household idolatry. Their vitiated words may be present in a home, but their spirit is long absent.  No longer appalled, we are encouraged. By making these words ordinary and robbing them of all strangeness, we are robbed of actually encountering those words at all.

Daniel Silliman’s excellent blog captures this very spirit:

[R]ather than easy adoration, the first response to St. Francis would be to feel appalled, threatened and offended. It would mean wanting to tell St. Francis he’s wrong, wanting to disagree, wanting to fight.

What the sage says is not immediately tasteful. In fact, if you are not offended, you are probably no longer reading what that sage is saying. When Jesus is reduced to a comfortable position thanks to extensive speculative theology, we cease to hear his revolutionary sayings. In the same way, Siddhartha too is reduced to a God-man by lay buddhists and clergy alike – Jesus, Siddhartha, and Dickinson are all worshiped, but none are taken seriously.

Who actually hears the words of Jesus anymore? Perhaps it’s only those who have never heard all the retrospective explanations of Jesus who can hear him authentically.

Those who bastardize the spontaneous sayings of saints into comfortable maxims for coffee mugs make me want to kick them in the shins. I want to kick worshipers precisely because they make me not want to kick saints in the shins.

It’s not just others who do this (though it is, also) it’s always that clinging ego that is always mine which prevents me from encountering the words in front of me.  That egoic character might be in an Other, but that ego is always “mine” and solution is found in the spirit of the saints and sages.  To blame someone else for preventing me from entering the Kingdom of Heaven is for me to prevent myself. The best science occurs when ego is suspended (when “I” am removed from the equation). The most difficult thing to do is simply to let things be as they are.

When Jesus addresses the “rich young man” (in possessions, in knowledge, in morality), it is not simply physical possessions but the very sense of “mineness” which prevents the man from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. It is only by dying to self that we can enter heaven or enter a poem.

“For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” It is always only the “least of these” who can enter the kingdom of heaven. The weak, the ignorant, the poor – these are those who, because they have so little in terms of worldly possessions, can suspend their everyday sense of self and encounter the world as it really is: they can see Jesus, and they can read a poem.

If I suspend my ego, I can, at times, be transported into the work before me – despite the residue of criticism. It’s not easy to do the simplest of things.

And then Jesus is criticizing me and no one else, St. Francis provokes the self-defensive urge to kick his shins, and Dickinson I forget as long as I read her poems.

A Review of The Salt Ecstasies by James L. White

What does he write of? The poet searches into his own lonely darkness and parses the secrets buried within it. He gets down, fat and breathless in his small turning, puts his body down in a stale bed, leans into this isolation, closes his eyes and dreams your body there, next to his, and relishes the event of your mutual rest, the transient physicality of your mutual interest, your deliciously losable connections, the time he was with you: he is making you again, not wholly but religiously, snacking on such remembrances, scooping up the fragments of you lingering in the lacunas of your being gone. He builds a reclusive paradise next to the bittersweet ways you have slipped away from him, from life, the way death’s stern promise folds you up in an incomplete absence, and there and thus he almost saves you, unsatisfactorily but earnestly; he mingles his melancholia with your traces, and eats that imaginary paradigm like a meal taken directly after a meal, without guilt (or with a pleasure in guilt), with the indulgence of a body alone to rule his own kingdom of shadows of you. The poet writes through the way of his life, “the ordinary composure of loving, loneliness, and death.” You are not invisible, not totally irretrievable, you are “buried in so many places,” halfway waiting in the unrecognized seduction of the liminal world between the back of the nightstand and its shadow on the wall. His is a poetics of longing, the profundity of desire, and this construction, this tragicomic funhouse populated by what’s indelibly left of the disappeared, is a sorry confirmation that neither you nor he will be, finally, saved. “I’d trade these words on the spot / to see you again.” If this ritual is not really seeing, what then? what does he write of? what is happening?

Maybe the archetypal James L. White poem is a memory of intimacy, the hard-won, precarious sort known by a culture of outsiders, which is uniquely coded, uniquely sentenced to expire, yet still so desired, still utterly precious, if not in its instance than in the recovery of it when the bed is let back to a single body. To capture such intimacy, that which was tinged with unreality and doom even as it happened, is to embrace its fictive capability, to invoke the fantasy of a fantasy, to find the supernatural weight the other’s presence gifted the room, the poem moving around it “the way ships move heavily between moon and sun, not lost / but like a well-piloted dream.” Then, for the real bruise of resonance, to try and carve into the fiction and pull out the emotional injury locked in its marrow. “I pant hard over this poem / wanting to write your body again.” Sometimes this seems like enough, like the verse is really discovering at something that means, but the disappointment of this practice, the masturbatory futility, can also shut down the pleasure and significance of it: “I want more.” In these poems where White performs, reruns, his lovers and friends out of their departure and back into his bed, to a seat next to him at his table, to his touch, sometimes he takes it so far that he breaks the poem, which he candidly acknowledges: “I just have to stop here Jess. / I just have to stop.” Exposition has its limits. In the clutter of angst, though, these poems will suddenly stab directly at something so nakedly honest, it’s impossible to disbelieve White hasn’t reanimated something displaced by circumstance. Through the tenuous panting across the empty space, he captures how it feels to be in love, lines himself inside the feeling. This is how “Skin Movers” concludes:

In this joyous season I know my heart won’t die
as you and the milk pods open their centers
like a first snow in its perfection of light.

Good love is like this.
Even the smell of baked bread won’t make it better,
this being out of myself for a while.

James L. White died before I was born. In an autobiographical fragment, he describes himself thus: “I was a half-rate ballet corps dancer, a soldier, a poet of some small merit, and wanderer of the earth, and a self-hater.” He has never found a position in the canon of gay American poets, most everything besides his final, posthumously published, work The Salt Ecstasies is seemingly totally dismissed, but the importance of his writing is not so rarefied that it has gone completely unacknowledged. He is simply relegated to the quiet niche of the outsider artist, the wonderful secret, poet’s poet or whatever, where this book has somewhat languished, though now brought back to a kind of prominence with its inclusion in the Graywolf Poetry Re/View series, which aims to guide “essential books of contemporary American poetry back into the light of print” under the direction of series editor Mark Doty, who handled the reissue this year (which includes a modest sample of previously uncollected material) and also wrote a marvelous introduction.

For me, the closest points of reference, in considering this book, are Leland Hickman and John Rechy. The similarly obscure, though denser, Hickman wrote poems with thematic overlaps; Rechy, of course, conjures a twilit world populated by lonesome, maladjusted denizens lurching around each other’s bodies under what White called the “tit-pink” neon of a bygone age of lurid cruising. As Mark Doty notes, “memory supplies context for this desire, and lust leads to the memory that wounds.” For anybody, especially a queer body, who read any of these three writers’ work around the time of their publications–one gets the sense he felt exposed to a new kind of writing, a display, an accomplishment, hitherto uncharted: the liberation of a gay male psychology across the page. Writes Doty (re: White), “In 1982, I’d never read a poem like this […] The diction of sex is fraught with peril.” But Doty also describes how a much younger poet once received The Salt Ecstasies: “He hated the book. He objected to the speaker’s seemingly intractable loneliness, to his night-realm of bars and baths and bus station […] He hated the shame that informed the book; White’s poems did not affirm him; they did not offer hope.” That perspective is understandable as it is unfortunate. White’s poems are mired in a period, but not stiffly so: they breathe, they surf along the pulse of memory and desire; while they cannot speak to today’s reader in exactly the same manner as a contemporary of Mr. Doty’s, they speak yet, complicatedly, and settle down into your spine all the same. The political climate has changed (maybe less significantly than we would like to think) and yet the base themes threaded through the verse of this collection, so lovingly stitched, trigger our guts and intelligences despite an anachronistic hopelessness (if White’s poems can even be said to articulate a profound lack of hope instead of, say, a lens of opulent solitude). Doty’s greatest insight, in his introduction, offers us a mature way to read the haunting quality of these poems: “further and further from the closet, we come to an increasingly complex understanding of the power and failure of desire, the ways that liberation isn’t a cure for loneliness or soul-ache or despair. Not that we’d trade this hard-won freedom for anything; it’s simply that we’re as free to be as sexually confused, as bowled over by longing, as uncertain as anyone else is.” We are free to believe that the answer to What does he write of? is you.

The other day, I posted a poem of Pablo Medina’s which I published in my second issue of Black Swan back in 1989. I put the magazine out with money from income tax returns. It was an act of love, an act of madness, and four issues went forth into the world before money prohibited my doing anything out of love.

Many of the poets were friends of mine, others friends of friends. In 1990, I published a language poetry issue—probably the only poetry mag in Jersey that did so back in 1990. Robert Kendall was my guest editor for that one, and layout and design went to the Aljira Arts Foundation, then under Victor Davson. Aljira later came into a shit load of grant money. Back then, they were fairly new. For that issue Robert Creeley gave us a poem.

I look back now and realize I published some good poets and fiction writers who later became well-known (or as well known as you might get in literary circles). It represented a wildly eclectic set of poets, fiction writers, and artists. Some of them, including Creeley, are now dead: my best friend, Joe Salerno, Charley Mosler, an unknown jazz poet and pioneer of spoken word, Steward Ross who got angry at me because I cut 14 lines out of one of his poems (it was twenty five lines long), but then used my edited version when he had it published in an anthology, Yictove, who ran the Knitting Factory poetry readings for several years.

One of these friends who is still very much alive is Tom Obrzut. I think Tom is one of the greatest writers of what I call “Wise ass.” “Wise ass” uses the dead pan, absurdism, and just drifting along tone of a comic routine as its chief shaping device. It is post-Lenny Bruce funny, meaning it is not tight and set up like a joke, but wanders over topical terrain, playing with the tropes that run from the silly, and anti-poetic, to the dark humor we might see in certain forms of Eastern European poetry—especially that poetry influenced by dadaism. It is knowing, “hip” in the old style of hip rather than ironic—kind of Steve Martin meets the funnier side of the Beats.

Well, this is an early poem from Obrzut. I think he was only 23 or 24 when he wrote it, and he was a lot prettier than he is now. Some of his newer poetry written by the uglier, older Tom, can be found in Maggy magazine. Tom is so deadpan some people take the poem seriously and don’t laugh, and wonder why this guy would talk about his friend eating four pounds of meat a day. Anyway, the poem:


Vegetarianism

My friend Anthony used to eat four pounds of meat a day.
Now he doesn’t.
I remember once I was a vegetarian.
Jeff says, “everyone was once a vegetarian.”
So it’s not so special
And besides I never ate four pounds of meat a day
except maybe once and that was kielbasi
Which isn’t exactly the same thing because kielbasi’s different
not like bacon or sausage really.

I like eating meat
Allen Ginsberg tells Pollack boys not to eat meat
And the Dalai Lama doesn’t even kill flies
Because he doesn’t want that responsibility.

And neither do I,
But there’s all these microbes on the seat of my pants and when I
sit down they’re screaming in pain and dying.
(Now, I know I’m sounding sarcastic and that’s not what I want to do)
I’m just trying to say—
We’re all busy killing things even ourselves
Which isn’t so great but it’s the way it is, the way it was, and
the way it’ll always be.
Someday, I’m going to die and never listen to Elvis ever again.
And that’ll be a shame.
Not especially for anyone else, but I won’t like it so much.
Not that that matters because even God don’t care—or the void or
whatever it is that powers this machine universe—don’t care
what happens to my ass.
And it’s only sad for me because it’s my ass and I like it.
Maybe that’s what the cow said before they smashed him in the
skull in that slaughterhouse
or maybe he didn’t have time and all he could do was think:
“Too bad, too fucking bad.”
As the end of the world came smashing through his eyes—
the way it always does.

This brilliant piece of wise ass manages to be pro-meat, anti-meat, and to show the absurdity of both positions because it uses the “just talking” wise ass voice of someone thinking out loud. It gets at the larger point of Buddhism: that everything in the world is suffering, and we cannot even breathe or sit down without destroying worlds. This is a far more difficult poem to pull off than the Pablo Medina’s well-crafted deep imagism. It does not have the “gravitas” of Medina’s poetic pallet, but note that it’s lack of gravitas makes the death of the cow that much more terrible (and funny). In its own meandering way, it makes an almost perfect essay on the impossibility of practicing a non-violent existence. We are meat to the universe, and the end of the world comes to us all. So what are the mechanisms of this structure.

Begin with an incidental fact that carries a sense of the ridiculous:

He’s a Dentist Now

My friend Mavis breastfed her children until they were 12.
I mean I thought it was a little quirky, but she was a motherly
type—you know—like the time she made me a quilt of all my favorite characters from Dante’s Inferno?
God I miss her. I thought when they arrested Mavis, it was
excessive. She was nice, always a good word for everyone,
and never a bad, just a good heart—you know what I mean?
The kids are fine—good cheek bones. All that sucking.
Jim, her eldest, went a little crazy for awhile, but don’t we all?
He’s a dentist now, and from what I hear, a really good one.

This ransacks the speaking schtick of Tom, and rambles, but it lacks his sense of voice. Voice cannot be ransacked because true voice, unlike tone, may be inconsistent within its range of indicators. The ability to play a modulating voice against a consistent tone is a deep mystery of poetics—especially of what we might call the conversational poem. Tom does not get outlandish (well he does, but not by creating an extreme situation). To get outlandish would ruin the dead pan. Still, he is absurd, and he uses deadpan and rambling in ways that allow the modulations of consciousness to go just about anywhere without seeming out of bounds.

Of course, if he suddenly gets overtly poetic on us, his poem would fall apart. It is hard to make a lyrical moment out of uber-prosaic lines like “my friend Anthony used to eat four pounds of meat per day.” Tom does what a good poet does—enters his own organic structure of language, and plays his consciousness against that loose structure. It is not the words, or images, but his tone, his timing and rambling that makes his poem work. So here’s your assignment: finish the Mavis poem, and then re-write Tom’s poem, adding poetic imagery. See how it affects the tone or voice? See how far you can take this experiment until the humor of the situation vanishes. You could try writing a pro-meat poem in a voice with a deadly serious, and humorless tone unaware of its own stupidity. Give it a shot.

I thought I’d share some Mayer sonnets, as Valentine’s day is almost upon us. Love nor the sonnet is standard in Mayer’s world, and she highlights the possibilities/ multiplicities of poetics and of love. After all, desire doesn’t always follow a neat and tidy pattern.

SONNET

So long honey, don’t ever come around again, I’m sick of you
& of your friends, you take up all my time & I don’t write
Poems cause I spend all my time wanting to fuck you & then
You put the apple onto the grilled cheese, I tie you up

Save me from your respective beauties, keep them home
Thanks for all the rock & roll music, if such a
Thing can be said. Who are those guys? The B-52’s?
That’s what Ethie told me. Can I believe her?

You wanna get married? You tie me up with
Garter belts & less than Heidegger & Kierkegaard the fact
That as we know the poem is not the thought so a slap
Might notice that Uranus suspected a comet? Let me know

He kicks her fallen hat & they are not grownup
Any more than a vase of flowers is, painted, so what?

INCIDENTS REPORT SONNET
for Grace

Woke up from dream on
July 9 1965, dream was erotic
(can’t remember what was in it),
I think the woman was attempting
to sit on her chair while
lifting the man’s wallet
but then on the boatride my hand
got caught in the elevator door
by the firecracker tossed in
by a child who was a woman as missing
as the coffee money, anyway I
lost balance and, falling, woke up
jerking off through the chair,
another chair, was still falling
on my foot, sorry.

INCANDESCENT WAR POEM SONNET

Even before I saw the chambered nautilus
I wanted to sail not in the us navy
Tonight I’m waiting for you, your letter
At the same time his letter, the view of you
By him and then by me in the park, no rhymes
I saw you, this is in prose, no it’s not
Sitting with the molluscs & anemones in an
Empty autumn enterprise baby you look pretty
With your long eventual hair, is love king?
What’s this? A sonnet? Love’s a babe we know that
I’m coming up, I’m coming, Shakespeare only stuck
You have to get young Americans some ice cream
In the artificial light in which she woke