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Tolstoy

Today I am going to speak on a panel in front of graduate students discussing publication. I was surprised when I was asked, but found out I was third or fourth choice (I suspected that) when other professors turned it down. I will go inspite of the fact that, at the moment, I can’t speak above a whisper (should be OK with a mic) and even though most of those students are immured in careerism. I will go because they are immured in careerism, and do not care for anything except how and where to publish. Well, they do, but you’d never know it. Everything they want me to tell them is already available in dozens of books on how and where. There’s even a spot on line that gives all the ratios of publications , breaks it all down,and analyzes in almost sabermetric like detail. I will be facing Ivan Ilyich everywhere–no Tolstoys. Now when one has lived to the ripe old age of 55, one should expect Ivan Ilyich everywhere–the professional, the careerist, the one who plans his future to the last detail. Unlike Tolstoy’s Ilyich, most Ivans never get a mysterious but fatal disease. They don’t have conversion experiences. They die as neatly and as normally as they have lived–as Rilke put it–in 800 beds. They fill our best magazines and our best presses, and they don’t care if no one one cares as long as the few right people care, and sometimes any faculty news list sounds like Diane Chambers, the pedantic bartender from the old show Cheers, attempting to do an intellectual’s version of rap boasting: and I am in this top magazines, and I just did this and I just did that. And (Sprewell wheels, Sprewell wheels, Sprewell wheels!) I hate it. If I hate it, then it must be inside me. We only hate that which is inside us and we disown it at our peril. Tolstoy and the aristocracy hated the vulgar ambitions of the middle class because the Nobility was fading and part of them secretly wanted to hold on to the arts, and work in some capacity, and part of them was loathe to admit their art and culture had been built on the shit and sweat of serfs. They saw themselves as one with the land and one with their serfs, and the last thing the rising middle class wanted to be was poor and “one” with the serfs. The middle class sees clearly. They know what being one with the serfs really is. So it goes.

Hate does not come from God; it comes from some part of us that secretly shares in the crime by which we are outraged. No moralist is from God. Moralists are from 2-year-olds outraged that “Tommy did that!” When the middle class hates the poor it is because part of them is still back there and terrified of making a return visit. I do not hate the poor because I was raised to believe a life of art and the mind is available to all. I still believe that: I am thick headed. Success in the arts however is largely based on some talent for being a careerist–a subtle one, even an overt and obvious one. This is not the arts; it’s the art biz. part of me is a snob, too regal to embrace careerism and professionalism. This is wrong of me.If I would be fair, then I must admit that my parents raised me to think poetry was a given, painting, and dance, and music were a given. They belonged to me as well any other congressman or cuff, and they had nothing to do with wanting to be successful. I suffered from the delusion that I was already successful. Wasn’t I loafing on a sofa with tears streaming down my face because I had heard Elgar’s cello concerto for the first time? Wasn’t that the best sort of success–the success of transport? Didn’t I contain such depths, such sensitivity, such grace? Art and success were not even linked in my mind, and having a “career” in the arts seemed so distant from being an artist that I hardly connected them. You could work in a grocery store all your life and play Casale’s Cello Suites, couldn’t you. Why not?

I was not a utilitarian. Art was beyond both failure and success. So, I saw it in a very Russian way I suppose. Even though I am a factory worker, the son of a factory worker, there is a great deal of hothouse flower in me. My mother and father let me be languid in the parlor, listening to Chopin Nocturnes played by Dinu Lipatti while the dust motes settled on all their glass swans and beat up furniture. A part of me was an aesthete. It is the aesthete in me that hates publication and literary business talks. They are vulgar. They are of the factory–filled with purposeful, pragmatic people who maybe are more determined than talented. The fact that the determined beat out the talented appalls me. I forget that professionalism and careerism is also a talent: the talent for doing everything the right way. It is not Proust hanging out in a parlor. It is Zadie Smith going to Harvard and then hanging out in a parlor where she may not have been welcomed sixty years ago. I forget that shrewdness and stealth are virtues. I am limited as all people are by my particular brand of snobbery.

I didn’t go to Harvard. I did however, hang out in parlor with people who went to Harvard,sand, since I was no threat to them, we had a jolly time. The grad students were right to ask me only as a last ditch alternative. I’m a mess when it comes to being a careerist.They are professionals and their professors are professionals. I am a professional only in so far as I know a lot about poetry–its technical aspects, its history. I also know music, and painting. If I had been a woman inthe 19th century, I would have made some rich man a good wife. I’m a generalist. When it comes to publications, I fell into that, and , I am woefully ignorant. I believe most poems and stories are published because they fit a niche or fulfill the requirements of a code language for what is, at the moment, considered “quality work.” This code is hardly ever accurate as per art. It is highly accurate as per prevailing tastes.. Publication is an accurate measure of a standard mold set–not art. Factor X–that which makes living art–is the rare accidental catch in the net of publication. Oh see that glistening fish? It has beautiful scales and great fighting ability. We caught that without intending to. (no one admits that). Art is an accident that happens when one is allowed to loaf at ease and read Keats, and write many bad poems–without pressure. How can I tell the grad students that? They have to publish And for whom? Increasingly, programs are becoming 20 adjuncts and a celebrity hire. Increasingly, all the top magazines run contests, and winning a contest becomes everything. The parlor has become a factory. Tolstoy would be appalled. AWP would make him puke. It makes me puke, but I went this year. I was terrible at it, and didn’t schmooze. I may be known for my mouth but I am actually shy and terrible at chitchat. This is one thing I know: while you can’t ignore the business, but you die if you forget the parlor. Unfortunately, I think most people want to be comfortably dead instead of uncomfortably alive. Even I am attracted to it.. The parlor is not the given. You can’t take grad school or time spent with fellow artists for granted. How much time do you spend with friends talking about books or painting or music when you don’t have to? It’s an important question. Constructive sloth is vital. Everyone I know who is truly successful , including former students, knew how to waste time. How do you waste your time? When you aren’t being busy, or purposeful or submitting work, what do you do? It may seem like a stupid question, but I know what I do: I write a poem or play the piano, or listen to someone play, I read poems. I write essays on Facebook that will never be read by a larger audience. I do a lot of things for nothing. What do you do for nothing?That is a question for the soul. I am worried about a country in which no one does anything for nothing (instead they do it for slave wages and call it a career) I am worried for a country where a Reggie who loves free jazz just for the hell of it is no longer possible. He was our true and intelligent audience, but we ignored him. He didn’t count. How do you know at age 20 or 30 or 40 who doesn’t count? Who taught you such stupidity?You write only for other writers?. I am worried about a country in which everyone is a careerist. I am concerned about what I see as a sort of professional version of sociopathy. But I am also a working stiff, and I understand you need a job. Art is tied to economics like everything else. To actually starve is stupid, but to believe too much in being successful is also stupid. Believe in meaningful work and look for it–both from yourself and from others, and be willing to be shocked when it comes from an unlikely place.

Other than that, remember you are going to die, no matter how many awards you win, and you will spend large parts of your life forgetting that. Careerism is only evil if it makes you forget first and last things, for art comes from the contemplation of first and last things–lasting art. Not that a careerist believes in lasting art. A careerist believes in the moment and in a future he or she can control. He or she believes in craft talks and seminars. I am still in the parlor on the verge of tears because I am hearing Schubert’s Lieder. It is hard to hear Schubert when you are bragging about your latest publication. This is not because I am a better person. It is because I am wilfully ignorant and stupid.It is because I was raised to constructive sloth, and vital undirected transports of the spirit. I am porbably bi-polar.My parents were probably bi-polar. I probably have a brain that sees significance in the weirdest places. I also spent 21 years in a factory. I know what a factory is. A university is often a factory. Publication is often a factory. No one wants that–not even the careerists, but shit happens. I am reaching an age where I want to return to the parlor. My students are too young to stay there. They think there are better places to be (and they are probably right), or they want to be in more exclusive parlors watching famous people chew overpriced food… When you are old, you will long to have a decent conversation with someone–something beyond the business. Only those who know how to waste time will waste time on you. At least I hope so. I don’t like to go to author’s dinners because the conversation is always tepid and boring. That’s how professionals talk. They keep the good stuff for the books.

I am dying for a good conversation and I won’t get one here. In the information age, talk is cheap unless its info. I am not an A student type. No one ever clapped because I jumped through a hoop. No one ever fed me a fish. “Weil, you dumb ass, I told you to sharpen all the drills to a 135.” I have lived there all my life and still do. A day after my surgery, no one at the university asked me how I was doing. They asked if I’d finished judging the fiction contest no one else wanted to judge. It hurt, but so fucking what? Suck it up and get back to your machine.

I’d love to teach a course centered on The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Tolstoy’s great novella cannot be studied in isolation from certain foundational texts standing at it were behind Ivan, and pushing him into the literary foreground. These are, but are by no means limited to, The Confessions of St Augustine and Rousseau, Tolstoy’s own tortured diaries, Paul’s Romans, Christ’s teachings on the world as opposed to the kingdom of God in the New Testament, and sundry Russian books and essays on the nature of the peasants, their aristocratic “fathers,” and this new dominant professional class to which Ivan belongs and which has neither loyalty to the land nor the simple faith of the peasant, and which has neither the refinement nor complicated decadence and aesthetic taste of the nobility. This “functionary class” is co-optive, incapable of originality, grafting onto its evil and mundane tree the native “shrewdness” and greed common to the worst peasants, and the pretentiousness and faux complexity/ haughtiness of the worst nobility. They are a class in love with Poshlost–forerunners of smart sets and hipsters. They are not merely middle class, but the Professional class. This is important to remember: They are the executors of the state and civil society–functionaries, masters of the machine of civil process. Tolstoy as a Christian anarchist can think of no more distasteful creatures. Their life is a form of death for him, and Nabokov is right to submit that, to Tolstoy’s mind, the characters who survive Ivan are the truly dead.

Through most of the text, Ivan fits the Biblical category of the lukewarm: “I would that thou were hot or cold, but being lukewarm I shall spit you forth from my mouth.” Being lukewarm, moderate, steady on the wheel is considered necessary to professional success. The motto might be mediocrity of the very best sort. He also enacts a narrative arc of two sayings attributed to Christ: First, the parable of the rich farmer who plots to build an extra barn for his abundant harvest and is told by God “thou fool! Does thou not know that your life is required of you this very night? Store up riches in heaven, and not on earth.” The second is more attributable to both Ivan and his so called “friends”: “And they were buying and selling, and giving and taking in marriage unto the last hour, and were caught unaware.” As for the surface of Ivan’s friends and family and world, we are reminded of the ruling citizens of Christ’s Israel (Pharisees and Sadducees) who were, according to, Jesus, like tombs: “all white on the outside, but on the inside, filled with all matter of decay and filth.” Finally, the question that goads Augustine into ontic crisis also lurks behind Ivan Illyich: “what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his only begotten soul?”

In addition, we must understand that Tolstoy himself was terrified of death–especially after his own brother’s horrible illness–and, at the same time, obsessed with death in its most clinical details, not only in its spiritual mysteries, but in terms of its pathology and sheer progression. Ivan’s death is very much a clinical as well as spiritual process and it is this long, drawn out, agony–in some ways as mundane as the false world it unravels, that is one of the marvels of the novel: the boredom of the dying, the tedium, the way it reduces a person to a corpse pending, the dying man’s exclusion from the living, his interminable otherness–this is all beautifully imagined in this masterpiece.

In the course, we would read subsidiary texts that go with some Tolstoy. Here are some possible examples that share common ground with the quotes from the text:

“He in his madness prays for storms, and dreams that storms will bring him peace”

“Blow, blow thou winter wind. Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.” Also, Elijah in the cave.

“Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”

Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil.

“Morning or night, Friday or Sunday, made no difference, everything was the same: the gnawing, excruciating, incessant pain; that awareness of life irrevocably passing but not yet gone; that dreadful, loathsome death, the only reality, relentlessly closing in on him; and that same endless lie. What did days, weeks, or hours matter?”

Ecclesiastes, the Book of Job.

”The very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always, a feeling of delight that he had died and they hadn’t.”
“But it seems to me that a man cannot and ought not to say that he loves, he said. Why not? I asked. Because it will always be a lie. As though it were a strange sort of discovery that someone is in love! Just as if, as soon as he said that, something went snap-bang – he loves. Just as if, when he utters that word, something extraordinary is bound to happen, with signs and portents, and all the cannons firing at once. It seems to me, he went on, that people who solemnly utter those words, ‘I love you,’ either deceive themselves, or what’s still worse, deceive others.”

“Can it be that I have not lived as one ought?” suddenly came into his head. “But how not so, when I’ve done everything as it should be done?”

“He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.

Paul: death, where is my death, where is it’s victory?”

“In place of death there was light.”

“All who attempt to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for my sake shall have eternal life.” and “All that is brought to light shall be made into light– John’s Gospel

“At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them.

Augustine Confessions, where the boys steal the fruit.

“But that what was for him the greatest and most cruel injustice appeared to others a quite ordinary occurrence.”

Auden’s “Beaux Arts”

“The example of a syllogism that he had studied in Kieswetter’s logic: Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal, had throughout his whole life seemed to him right only in relation to Caius, but not to him at all.”
“Death is finished, he said to himself. It is no more!”

Paul: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“Come, what did I say, repeat it? he would ask. But I could never repeat anything, so ludicrous it seemed that he should talk to me, not of himself or me, but of something else, as though it mattered what happened outside us. Only much later I began to have some slight understanding of his cares and to be interested in them.”
“He was much changed and grown even thinner since Pyotr Ivanovich had last seen him, but, as is always the case with the dead, his face was handsomer and above all more dignified than than when he was alive.” (zen saying: nothing is more valuable or dignified than a dead cat. Or the Native American tradition of praying over the killed game, or the religious injunction to witness to the dead, even in so far as witnessing to road kill.

Almost any Buddhist teaching.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”
“When the examination was over, the doctor looked at his watch, and then Praskovya Fyodorovna informed Ivan Ilyich that it must of course be as he liked, but she had sent today for a celebrated doctor, and that he would examine him, and have a consultation with Mihail Danilovich (that was the name of his regular doctor). ‘Don’t oppose it now, please. This I’m doing entirely for my own sake,’ she said ironically, meaning it to be understood that she was doing it all for his sake, and was only saying this to give him no right to refuse her request. He lay silent, knitting his brows. He felt that he was hemmed in by such a tangle of falsity that it was hard to disentangle anything from it. Everything she did for him was entirely for her own sake, and she told him she was doing for her own sake what she actually was doing for her own sake as something so incredible that he would take it as meaning the opposite.”

“That is not what I mean/that is not it at all”–Prufrock.
Hopkins: Spring and Fall.
Also husband and wife relations in the Bible (Sara and Abraham, Job and his wife) as well as wives and husbands in Russian folk tales.

There are a couple subsidiary texts we would have to read in addition to Ivan, all having to do with the dying or the spiritually dead: King Lear, Issa’s memoir of his father’s death, and Chekhov’s “In the Ravine.” We would also look at Augustine’s Confessions and relate Tolstoy’s exaltation of the peasant to variations on the myth of the “Magic negro.” How does Tolstoy’s sometimes sentimental fondness and adoration for the peasant differ from Gunga Din? How does it differ from takes on the noble savage, or for that matter, from often sentimental tropes on the poor? How does his disdain for the middle class differ from Marxist views? How does it resemble the Marxist view? Why does Tolstoy attack simple and ordinary here, when in most works, and even in this text, he lauds the simplicity of the peasant. What sort of simplicity and ordinariness is he calling most terrible?

We would consider Kierkegaard’s teachings on despair: despair of not being oneself, despair of being one’s self, and the sickness unto death: a despair so deep and total, that one is not even aware of being in despair. And so in addition to King Lear, Issa memoir on his father’s death, and Chekov’s The Ravine, we will be reading The Sickness Unto Death.

For historical background, read up on Christian anarchy, the post-liberation/pre-revolution civil life of Russia, and various works on chronic illness and its pathology.

Is this the kind of class you’d take?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best way to gain time is to change place.
—Proust

Any review of literature in translation is also a review of the translation. And in this act, the review is also, in part, a comment on the endeavor of translation itself.

The Zoo in Winter, a selection of Polina Barksova’s poetry translated by Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg, often addresses this issue of translatability head on. For Barskova, language shapes both perceptions of and expressions of interior identity and exterior reality, writing, “how could one describe in Russian/ The grand and small (goddamn) details/ Of need, so that the martyr’s crooked body/ Would not be crooked more painfully,/ So that, as it had once, it should desire/ Purposeless days in place of rueful days?”

In her work, Barskova doesn’t shy from explicitly stating her concerns as a writer, a woman, and a Russian living in the U.S., writing, “most of all I’m occupied with beauty/ I’m driven mad by the fact that the prattle healthyyoungbeautiful/ in their language means simply alive…” Here, and in its concern for beauty and its confrontation with mortality, poetry has the capacity, despite language-gaps, to bring people together, across genders, across nations, across languages—even as memory recedes, even as death intervenes—in the very act of articulating these divides. Barskova writes:

Under a foreign sky, under the ward
Of smiling Berkeley invalids
Whom I attend,
My soul lies like a hero killed,
No longer drawing crows.
Everything toothsome has been pecked from it,
It should be washed by rains and kicked by winds.
But – there is neither rain, nor wind, and one can hardly
Pick out a word to cover up the shame.
Words that serve here are meek and even,
Foreign to past grandiloquence…

In that passage—from “On Overcoming the Language Barrier”—language is not a mere characteristic of a nation’s people, but shapes nationality, and nationality, is not only a characteristic of an individual, but shapes that individual from his/her origin.

 

_____

 

Two years ago, in celebration of the Tolstoy Centennial, at a Russian-themed reading at Pacific Standard in Brooklyn, Polina Barskova read with Ilya Kaminsky and Boris Dralyuk, a translator of Tolstoy and also Barskova’s translator. And this reading in 2010, marking one hundred years since Tolstoy’s sudden disappearance, then illness and death at a railway station in then-Astapovo, now named Lev Tolstoy, Barskova read her poems in the original Russian, then in the English translation, suggesting a loyalty to her own language, while also a commitment to being understood across barriers.

Also there in reading’s audience was Austin LaGrone, a Louisiana poet I met just before the reading began. We discussed the Southern Writers Reading series, which takes place monthly at a massage parlor-turned bar in Chinatown, and his then-forthcoming first book, Oyster Perpetual, selected for the Idaho Prize for Poetry by Thomas Lux and now available through Lost Horse Press. (Months later, in the same backroom of Pacific Standard, LaGrone would read from it, and I’d snag a copy.)

His book, like Barskova’s work, rings out strongly of its origin, but in a way that neither exoticizes where it comes from nor alienates a reader who comes from someplace else. Further, it shares a similar concern with being transplanted to new cities, with bridging time and place, and with conveying experience that is specific to an era and locale while also reaching beyond its context. In “Peach Flavored Cheyennes” LaGrone writes:

I’m not sure how things
come together to make a life,
or at what nexus we choose our heroes.
I want to sing Hank Williams.
But then I see girls
outside Pete’s Candy Shop
tying cherry stems with their tongues
and I think about Crystal
working the pole down at Maxine’s.
The heart grows stubbornly
in whatever soil we give it.

And even though this conversation during the break in this Russian-themed reading was our first-ever, our talk ended up landing on the topics of illness, death, and grieving. Oddly, it is with this similar, associative motion that Barskova’s poems function. In the book’s title poem, she writes:

Your father now holds Frosya by the hand. The hand –
Should be memory’s last stop
Before it swims off into the abyss.
The palm wraps round the night trains of remembrance,
Proust’s soggy little madeleines,

And VN’s Dobuzhinskii caves.
And Frosya’s wooly head
Is pressed against the tender web of veins,
Stretched out across the father’s ruin
Like a sweet lover’s furrow.

The hand. To hand. He walks into the room, where I sit without light,
As if I’m Heracles, ensnared with Admetus,
Hoping to save someone, yet lingering.
And mumbles: “I’m still. How cold. Give me that.”
And grasps my hand in a despairing handful,
The sweaty palm – awakened, warmed,
Blooms, nearly, like a stump on a spring day,

What’s astonishing – your father doesn’t know
Who I am, in that room looking after him,
Judging about him,
Yes, and in general, himself. Druid and asteroid,
He moves in darkness,
He moves towards me,
So as to freeze above me, and for a long time warm my hands
In the comfortless silence of his haggard rooms.

This reading was two years ago, now, as Tolstoy died in 1910, but I can still remember, as Barskova read the last lines of that title poem, “Since he has long ago forgotten all our names,/ Let him give names to us: Madness and Death,” LaGrone and I caught each other’s eye, astonished, across the packed backroom of that Brooklyn bar on 4th Avenue and St. Marks.

Read Levi Rubeck on Oyster Perpetual here.

I tell my students that sentimentality is the appropriate emotion at the most predictable time rendered in the most obvious weather, and all of it covered with a thin scum of false compassion. But you can get away with all that, yes, even a tear falling for a dead mother on a cloudy day, if you let it be what it is, in its full poverty, if you don’t wield it like some huge club of sensitive “feeling” with which you knock the reader over the head. True feeling has the force of grace; sentimentality has the stench of morals. The word “should” and “must” cling to its fat cherubic legs. Half comprised of self regard, and the other half a mixture of cliche, the sentimental is close to the feigned regard of the funeral director: appropriate, and grave, but with one eye on the itemized bill. Hitler wept when he watched a pair of boiling lobsters, but showed no particular compassion for those he exterminated.

A mind too utilitarian and selfish, too unable to see its own contradictions, too willing to be its own hero will often have an undeveloped feeling sense. This might go a long way towards explaining why a man might cry at his spoiled brat of a daughter’s wedding (my baby, my little girl) and not even slow down to drop a quarter in the cup of a beggar. He has scenarios for his emotions: beggars are all worthless pieces of shit who cause their own troubles, but daughters getting married are video worthy–extensions of his delusion that all is right with the world, and he is a wonderful daddy. Much of what we call sensitivity is no deeper than Madame Bovary’s fantasies about being a cloistered nun. It’s horseshit.

The difficult, the ambiguous, the nuanced call for an integrity of equivocation: this does not mean we should blunt all emotions or feelings when we write. Just as some people like sappy stories, others consider any direct feeling to be a sin against their aesthetics. Both represent different species of limited. I tell my students compassion and feeling are not in the feelings themselves, but in the artistic selection of details that bring them to life. In a story where a man comes home to find his wife in bed with another man, you might create a far better feeling sense if you have him peek through the half opened door, see his wife’s clothes holding a press conference with the man’s belt and neck tie, and, instead of having the husband break in and attempt to kill the wife and lover, or having him break down in sobs, he quietly goes down stairs, and sets the tea kettle to boil, very carefully removes his eye glasses, wipes them, waits for the kettle to scream for him, a whistle that will no doubt alert the lovers that he has arrived. Good actors know that emotion can be implied through a procedural of small actions, none of which are spectacular in and of themselves, but which, cumulatively, achieve an effect of the genuine.

It is also important to remember that subtle is not always better than overt and obvious.Some writers, especially those trained in writing programs, go overboard being nuanced. I call this Chekhov syndrome. They never met an emotion they liked, and yet, their stories (or poems) can be so understated that they never show up on the page at all. This is just as god awful and boring as being maudlin, and, worse, you may even win awards for it! Others of an equally “nuanced” bent might see themselves and their values reflected in your work and consider you a “subtle” artist even when it is actually a case of you being a cold hearted snob ass. Cold hearted snob asses too often run the arts. Chekhov, unlike his followers, knew how to be openly emotional and direct. I love Chekhov better than almost any other artist, but many of his followers bore me. They almost make me want to watch “The Sound of Music” (Love Richard Rogers, hate that musical.) So what to do?

Einstein said: “Things are as simple as they are, and no simpler.” I think this applies to the feeling sense in poems and stories as well. One of the safest things you can do is teach students to “show don’t tell,” but that can lead to two errors: one, overly describing and indulging in detail for its own sake. Two, the sort of “overly nuanced” feeling sense I mentioned just a paragraph ago. I prefer: “make sure your telling shows, and your showing tells, and that the two are not so easily separated since it is the miracle of art that showing and telling be one living force, just as character and plot be one living force.

This morning, I was very happily sipping coffee, eating a hard boiled egg, and reading Nabokov’s lectures on Russian literature. These lectures are as much an aesthetic pleasure to read as a good novel. At any rate, Nabokov recognized Tolstoy as the greater artist, but Chekhov’s stories were what this great writer and, yes, snob would have taken with him if exiled to another planet. He went on in great detail about the story usually translated as “The Ravine” (Nabakov prefers “The Gully”). Nabokov’s love and admiration for Chekhov were so evident that I found myself moved to tears. I was quite pleased with my noble soul. Then I went outside to smoke a cigarette and stare at the snow swirling in thirty mile an hour gusts. Tree branches were strewn about the yard. My garbage can had made it half way down the drive way and looked as if it might hurl itself at the next available Volvo.

Still full of my artistic sensitivity, I spied a slate grey Junco hopping about near the porch. I said: “hello, Mr. Junco.” I approached it, thinking it would fly off, but the Junco only hopped rather less than frantically, and I noticed its left wing was broken. I chased that Junco half way through my yard, determined to catch it and mend it, and show how compassionate I am. He tried to escape my kindness by making a run for a Lilac bush. This exposed him to a sharp shinned hawk who swooped down and put the pretty pink billed bird out of its misery. I may have covered my eyes. I may have hated the hawk, or myself, but I watched fascinated. The grace and ferocity, and the snow swirling all about gave me a sense that this moment was memorable, that I must witness it without judgment or editorial prejudice. The Junco gave forth only one small cry of distress, and then it was dead in the talons of the hawk, and I thought of the character Lipa in Chekhov’s story, how her child is murdered by a miserable woman who throws a cup of boiling water on him. At the end of this story, long after the murder, Lipa gives a piece of buck wheat cake to the senile and cuckolded husband of the murderer, her former father-in-law. She then dissolves into the story’s end, singing a song into the evening light. I thought how mercy and ferocity might be difficult to parse out, how they might fall upon each other in such odd and frightening and glorious ways. I thought that my recent feelings of self ennoblement for being such a sensitive reader had been foolish and petty, and that the “gift” I was being given was exactly this moment in which nothing in my heart or conscience could be clearly agreed upon. This is the truth of feeling. This is where I must begin.

I spoke of ontology before, the significance of being that stems from a poem, but there are minor poems, small triumphs of imagery, of rhythm, or beauty that make us think: “Why am I so concerned with truth or significance? Right now, my lover is asleep, and the venetian blinds are leaving their shadow across her face, and I wish I could stay here. Fuck Tolstoy. Fuck King Lear. I want to kiss her nose.”

Well, maybe others just take everything that makes life bearable for granted, or maybe they use this moment to consider how, in sleep, a lover may as well be a tree—that there is a certain terrifying aspect to the lover unconscious and unaware of, well, of me! I’ve had girlfriends wake me up because they were lonely. Sometimes, I don’t mind, especially if we start making out again. But sometimes it annoys me. None of this will win me a Nobel prize. But what I remember about Anna is not the plight of very rich noblewomen in 1870′s Russia; I remember the moment when Count Vronski breaks his horse’s back, or when Oblonski (Steve to his friends) wakes at the beginning from a very pleasant dream (dancing decanters with pretty legs, and opera) to realize he and his wife, Dolly are on the outs because he’s been schtupping the children’s governess.

I remember the details. I also mis-remember them, an equally wonderful thing, since what we mis-remember can be so vivid. I know people who misremember whole relationships, and, once their sour husband is dead, they get weepy eyed over finding an unmatched sock of his tucked away in a drawer. We do not mis-remember concepts or attitudes, or “truths” because they are the rather rickety frame on which we dab the mud of our memories and false impressions, and make for that doomed hut we call consciousness. As a friend of mine says: “caress the details, the divine details.”

The ontology of some poems is as follows: to capture, in however full a way, the precise, oh so precise feel of pussy williow against your neck the last time you saw Vanya, who spun about, and struck the soft spring ground with a stick, and then vanished into her career, her resume, the lie of just the facts which can never, never summon forth the quickened pulse, the despair of knowing you would not see her again and that she probably married some guy who never noticed anything except that he thought he ought to. Poets remind us of the obvious, the glorious obvious that we have forgotten while we were busy “living” our “meaningful” lives.

If you write enough poems that capture such a moment, you will be considered a minor poet, but we should investigate this term minor: rather than meaning less than great, it can mean great in a small, and specific way. Consider this Robert Herrick gem:

Feign would I kiss my Julia’s dainty leg
which is as white and hairless as an egg.”

In our humorless, and supposedly explicit (though not at all erotic) culture, we have lost the gift perhaps of appreciating such exquisite, and mincing desires.

I am worried. I am worried that people are out there having sex and never noticing what a leg feels like against their leg. What kind of world is that? Minor my ass. That’s the whole of the sky! It’s as important as believing in God, since God is in the details—not the maxims.

This brings me to truck out one of my old time favorite “minor” poems, “The Base Stealer” by Robert Francis. Besides the five senses, there is also kinetic imagery—those combinations of words that create a certain sense of movement in a poem, that describe movement. Rilke has a great kinetic image in his poem about the gazelle (Look it up on line. It’s there, and if you can tell me what that kinetic image is, I’ll give you ten extra credit points). Francis is the greatest minor poet America produced. Donald Justice comes close, and May Swenson gives both a run for their money. And Robert Haydn ain’t no slouch, either, (Those Winter Sundays may be the best sonnet written by An American poet in the 20th century). But, poem for poem, you don’t get more perfect than Francis. His work makes me so ashamed of everything I’ve ever written. This is the best depiction of a man stealing a base ever. It is also the best use of kinetic imagery I know, And look what he does with the word, delicate, in the last line!

The Base Stealer

Poised between going on and back, pulled
both ways taut like a tightrope-walker,
finger tips pointing the opposites,
Now bouncing tip toe like a dropped ball
Or a kid skipping rope, come on, come on,
running a scattering of steps sideways,
How he teeters, skitters, tingles, teases,
taunts them, hovers like an ecstatic bird,
He’s only flirting, crowd him, crowd him,
Delicate, delicate, delicate, delicate—now!

Francis uses gerunds (ings) properly—to create suspense, to create tension. The word delicate has a certain bounce to it—a perfect sense of bounce. It sounds like its meaning: ready to burst or break. “Come on, come on” in line five gives a sense that anticipating the runner’s break for second is becoming sheer torture. You don’t have to like or even know baseball to appreciate this. If you have never seen a ball player get ready to steal, or threaten to steal, watch a video on YouTube, and you will see the triumph of kinetic accuracy this poem happens to be. And notice how he uses his T sounds! The hard T sound appears in almost every line, sometimes as the initial sound of the word (taut, tightrope, tip toe, teeters, tingles, teases, taunts) and also in medial or terminal positions (between, taut, pointing, opposites, scattering, steps, skitters, ecstatic, delicate). It’s an essay on how to use -ings, and how to thread a sound through a poem for maximum effect. It’s a minor masterpiece, and I do not use minor in a demeaning way. Literary theorists use literature as an excuse for ontological truths (or gender, or sexual, or identity issues). This is a legitimate way to ransack texts, but it will not teach you how to write. Ontology begins with detail selection—in terms of word choice, verbal relationships, rhythm. A theorist wouldn’t know what to do with this poem, unless the theorist started to write a book on kinetics in terms of verbal constructs and the cultural bias of admiring athletes as per one’s gender, or class. Minor may only mean a theorist can’t find much to theorize about. Now Herricks little couplet could be an example of the “objectification” of a woman’s body parts. But suppose we get rid of all appreciation of the body in poems… have we not turned a human being into an “idea” then—a political or theoretical entity. I don’t know. But our culture is terrified of details. All governments and religions are terrified of details, especially when they temporarily re-route or short circuit “general” ideas. Power depends on symbols we don’t really think about—on orienting us towards the automatic. There is no more revolutionary act in poetry than to see or depict something from a fresh point of view, to liberate it from the graveyard of received ideas. “Make it new,” said the early modernists. I would qualify that statement to read: “make it obvious, and better still, makes us startled by the obvious.”