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Whitman

What are some reasons why we read poetry? Why turn to a poem over a novel, a play, a philosophical treatise? In this essay I want to suggest that we turn to poetry out of a fundamental desire to answer the question, How should one live? By making this claim, I am attempting to wonder about poetry’s relationship to the ethical, broadly conceived here as partaking in the four distinctions of ethical criticism as laid out by Wayne Booth in his book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction and then paraphrased and articulated by Martha Nussbaum in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Those distinctions are 1.) Asking of a literary work, as Nussbaum writes, “What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well?” 2.) “What sense of life is expressed in this work as a whole?” 3.) As there are “many good things for literature to do and be,” how do we talk about ethical criticism without reducing it to some “single dogmatic theory”? 4.) “What becomes of readers as they read?” (Nussbaum 232-233)

Furthermore, while I am interested in asking these questions more broadly about poetry, my emphasis in this essay will be on the work of John Ashbery, whose work I have found sustaining, consoling, and always interesting for about a decade now. Because the question, “How should one live,” is so resolutely personal, it seems important to choose a poet with whom I also feel – without knowing him personally at all – a kind of personal connection. For if literary works are, as Wayne Booth writes, like friends, and “we can assess our literary relationships in much the same way that we assess our friendships, realizing that we are judged by the company we keep,” then it seemed of the utmost importance to write about a “friend” that has, to paraphrase Nussbaum, enriched my life, however distantly, in a substantial way. (Nussbaum 234) Indeed, one of our greatest readers, Harold Bloom, has written,

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life. (19)

So if Ashbery has been a kind of “good friend” to me over the years, how has his work enriched my life?

2.

Let me start here: I remember vividly the first time I came across Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, at Shamandrum Bookstore in Ann Arbor in 2003. The orange spine of the book caught my attention, and I pulled the slim volume off the bookshelf and read Bloom’s exultant blurb, in which he placed Ashbery in the company of poets like T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane. I opened the book to the first poem, and read

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the sun yellows the green of the maple tree….
So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen. (427)

Reading that passage from Ashbery’s “As One Put Drunk Into a Packet-Boat,” I myself “felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages”. There was something mysterious and lyrical about the passage, something exquisite, moving, and funny. Who else wrote in their poems about the “smell of an old catalogue”? What was the “thing” that was prepared to happen? The poem captured the excitement one might feel during the time the symphony warms up, that scintillating sound of instruments testing their timbers, meeting each other in the strange arena of sound, coming together to produce “the promise of that fullness,” for which “the least attentive fall silent / To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.”

I bought the book. I had never come across a poet as suggestive as Ashbery, nor read anyone with such a mastery of language. As a child I had loved The Phantom Tollbooth, and perhaps a part of me was still searching for that one conductor who, as he swung his baton in the air, could orchestrate the movement and color of the sun setting and rising. Ashbery, more than any poet I had read up that point, struck me as that conductor. His poems were participatory events, musical and visual as well as verbal, as rich with fecund possibility as W.H. Auden’s early poems, which I had fallen in love with a few months earlier. And as I read more Ashbery, certain questions began to percolate. The main question was: How could criticism talk about as rich a poet as Ashbery, without somehow suffocating his suggestiveness, his wacky humor, his idiosyncratic and imaginative gifts? Why was I so taken with the poetry?

3.

Richard Rorty has written of Harold Bloom that,

His ideal reader hopes that the next book she reads will recontextualize all the books she has previously read – that she will encounter an authorial imagination so strong as to sweep her off her feet, transport her into a world she has never known existed. In this new world, all the authors and characters with who she has previously been acquainted will look different…The reader’s real-life friends, relations and neighbors will also look different, as will their motives and choices. (390)

I love this quote, because this is exactly what happened when I read Ashbery. I was transported, swept off my feet. Everything I had read up to that point changed – it was if a great shifting occurred in my mind, not exactly suddenly but gradually – and over time I began to compare what I read – mostly 20th century American poetry – with the surprise, enchantment, and supple, tremendous sense of humor and nostalgia I found in Ashbery. And when I found much work lacking in the virtues I admired in Ashbery – taking itself too seriously, say, like in the work at times of W.S. Merwin or T.S. Eliot, or taking itself too un-seriously, like in the work of Allen Ginsberg and many of the Beat poets – I would continually return to Ashbery’s work, still startled, still unsure of how a mind could so continually surprise me with its jarring juxtapositions, its risks, its sheer imaginative chutzpah. As times passed, I became basically in awe of Ashbery’s poems, for I could not find in any poet’s work – with the exception of some major poets, like Stevens, Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, A.R. Ammons – as ferocious a freshness, a newness, a kind of constantly renewing something that made the poems always delightfully baffling, pulling me into their dazzling fields, astonishing me with their metaphors, and making me gulp with pleasure at their sheer unwillingness to be pigeon-holed in any way.

4.

So, let us return to Nussbaum’s paraphrasing of Booth, What sense of life is expressed in Ashbery’s work as a whole? What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well? For this we have to look at a poem. Hence, here is a shorter poem, “Spring Cries,” from Ashbery’s book from 1994, called And the Stars Were Shining:

Our worst fears are realized.
Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.
She pleads with us to say: “Stay,
just for a minute, can’t you?”

We are expelled into the dust of our decisions.
Knowing it would be this way hasn’t
made any of it easier to understand, or bear.
May is raving. Its recapitulations

exhaust the soil. Across the marsh,
some bird misses its mark, walks back, sheepish, cheeping.
The isthmus is gilded white. People are returning
to the bight: adult swimmers, all of them. (4)

How do we read this poem? Where do we draw the line between description and metaphor? For example, how does one read “The isthmus is gilded white” – is this literally a description of an isthmus, perhaps alluding to the way the sun hits it at a particular hour, or is there something about the isthmus being “gilded white” to suggest bafflement, bewilderment, or even a kind of tentative beauty? But let me first back up. Notice the way the poem begins, by refusing to make a statement that cannot itself be contradicted. “Our worst fears are realized” we read, and we think “oh no! This is likely to be a sad or mournful poem” – at which point we read, “Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.” Suddenly we are completely in the Ashberian universe, where “either/or” is constantly exploded to make way for “both.” And the first two lines are general enough to relate to anyone reading – who hasn’t experienced failure and success in ways that are always unpredictable? And who hasn’t heard the desperation and sadness of someone asking, “Stay, just for a minute, can’t you?”

The poem therefore evidences an exhaustion, a sort of uncaring about what happens next – success or failure, who cares? They both simply ebb and flow, lapping up onto the sand of our lives in ways we can never hope to predict or anticipate. Better to simply stand apart without attaching too much sense or meaning to these changes (?). But if this is the speaker’s stance, what is ours? Do we agree with the speaker? Do we empathize with him or her? Of course, at certain times in our lives we would agree; at other times we might not. Either way, Ashbery says, “We are expelled into the dust of our decisions,” though this knowledge is not easy to “understand, or bear.” For the world, like the month of May, is “raving” – crazy, loony, enigmatic, never to be fully understood. And all the iterations of May, unlike what we normally associate with spring, do not cause a regeneration of the soil but instead “exhaust” it.

As we continue to read the poem, it becomes clear to us that the poem is just general enough for us to relate to it, but just particular enough for us to be aware of a different speaker speaking, and of the multitude of possibilities that might have been spoken instead. For couldn’t this just as likely have been a poem of celebration of May? Instead, however, the poem is about a kind of sad human incompetence, finitude. For even the bird on the marsh, we learn, feels “sheepish” and “misses the mark.” And then the very enigmatic ending, which I read as suggesting a kind of futility related to everything that is happening around the speaker – still, despite all of our successes and failures, and our inability to know which will come next, still we jump into the water, we jump into the next bend in our fate, somehow willingly, even as adults! What a weird and revolting and exhausting (and amazing?) state of affairs!

I want to emphasize again here that the sense of life as expressed in this poem is a contingent one, based upon the speaker’s circumstances and place at the time of the writing of the poem. Whether Ashbery is making up a speaker, or is articulating his own particular worldview at the moment, is unimportant. What is important is that we are being presented with a whole worldview, a whole philosophy, and we are then asked to wonder about it, to be made aware that, like the speaker, we are particular people in a particular time with our own preoccupations, and that here is an entirely different person with his or her own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations. Naturally, then, we might wonder, What are our own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations? If we were the speaker of the poem, would we lend more credence to agency? Would we agree with what we perceive to be the speaker’s exhaustion? Do we nod our heads knowingly or raise an eyebrow as if to say, Is this really how we feel about things?

5.

See how the poem, then, occasions such ethical reflections, merely by unfolding its own kind of logic of particulars. And this thickness of description, this polytheistic quest, seems to be the reason why Rorty and Martha Nussbaum praise the novel as a moral agent, (although they might as well be praising poetry as well), capable of nothing less than, in Nussbaum’s words,

psuchagogia (leading of the soul), in which methodological and formal choices on the part of the teacher or writer [are] bound to be very important for their eventual result: not just because of their instrumental role in communication, but also because of the values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view. (16-17)

“The values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view” – in our case, a view in “Spring Cries” that life is absurd, hard-to-grasp, frustrating and sometimes exhausting. But remember – this is the speaker speaking. And Ashbery’s poems are rife with polyvocality, with an almost perverse pleasure in a chorus of voices and images jostling against each other, all competing for our attention, all calling attention to what Nussbaum calls “the incommensurability of our values,” how we are incapable of prioritizing our real values but instead must learn to be as responsive as possible to the “ethical relevance of circumstances.” (37) And the plethora of vocabularies and idioms and tones that Ashbery employs means that one quickly learns to become sensitive to many things in his poems, including tone, mood, word choice, rhythm, allusion, “subject matter” and much more. For this reason, Ashbery’s poems are both about moral progress as increased sensitivity, or the ethical relevance of circumstances, while at the same time they enact this kind of moral progress in the reader, through his or her process of deep reading. By sensitizing the reader to a larger and more diverse set of possibilities, Ashbery’s poetry serves as a kind of poetic guidebook of what Wallace Stevens, another life-teacher, called “How to Live, What to Do.”

6.

“What becomes of readers as they read?” Nussbaum writes of an “ethical ability that I call “perception”:…By this I mean the ability to discern, acutely and responsively, the salient features of one’s particular situation.” (37) Earlier in the same chapter she poses these questions:

Then, too, what overall shape and organization does the text seem to have, and what type and degree of control does the author present himself as having over the material? Does he, for example, announce at the outset what he is going to establish and then proceed to do just that? Or does he occupy, instead, a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change? Do we know at the outset what the format and overall shape of the text is going to be? And how does it construct itself as it goes, using what methods? (33)

Hopefully it is clear at this point that Ashbery occupies “a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change.” But what methods, as Nussbaum insightfully asks, does the poem use to construct itself? To attempt to answer these questions requires looking at one more poem. Here is the first stanza of “Valentine,” from Houseboat Days.

Like a serpent among roses, like an asp
Among withered thornapples I coil to
And at you. The name of the castle is you,
El Rey. It is an all-night truck stop
Offering the best coffee and hamburgers in Utah.
It is most beautiful and nocturnal by daylight.
Seven layers: moss-agate, coral, aventurine,
Carnelian, Swiss lapis, obsidian – maybe others.
You know now that it has the form of a string
Quartet. The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What is this poem talking about? How do we account for a poem that covers, in fourteen lines, serpents, castles, truck stops, Swiss lapis, a string quartet, and “a new kind of emptiness”?

Perhaps we can get at the meaning of this poem by investigating Ashbery’s usage of “you,” and placing this in the context of moral progress as increased sensitivity. For what is “you” in this poem? You are the name of a castle, an all-night truck stop, something beautiful and nocturnal, with the form of a string quartet. With each iteration of “you,” the poem expands our self-image, calling our attention to aspects of our experience and world that are not typically represented as thematic matter in a poem (say, an all night truck stop in Utah juxtaposed with the name of a castle). (In this sense, we might say that Ashbery’s quest is analogous to Whitman’s, in that both provide us with catalogues and categories that extend the boundaries of what we consider to be important, what we value.) It’s as if each iteration, each part of the catalogue, widens the circle of our self-image. In doing so, in pushing back the thresholds for what we consider parts of our community, our deep ethnocentrism, they redescribe us, and in doing so, redescribe our values. The poem is a microcosm of society, in which

The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What do all our interactions amount to? Simply and complexly the moment of our attention, the “mooring of our starting out,” an increased sensitivity to our particular circumstances. It is perhaps a “fresh emptiness,” meaning an invigorating life unclouded somewhat by the insidious quality of our devotions to overly abstract concepts like “Reason” or “Reality,” or it is just an emptiness, a kind of existential echo chamber or vacuum in which we make transitory meanings that importantly create hope for a better future and greater understanding, but which still take place in a world shorn of metaphysics, or absolutes, or, as Rorty puts it, “neutral starting points for thought.”

7.

Perhaps it is because there are no “neutral starting points for thought” that Ashbery begins his poems so often en media res. For it is a strategy that immediately evokes in the reader a bewilderment, a sense of not knowing where exactly he or she is, and this carries over, then, into the reader’s own situation while reading: How did we end up where we are? The effect of beginning in the middle of things prompts us to move from the microcosm of the poem to the macrocosm of our lives: What strange confluence of fate and chance has been orchestrated to work to produce the rather miraculous equilibrium in which we sit and read? What kind of balance does our present place in the universe suggest, and how in the world did we wind up where we are? These questions are raised instantaneously as we begin many Ashbery poems; which is to say, that many of Ashbery’s poems serve promptly to historicize us, while at the same time force us to directly participate in the poem, for if we don’t know where we are in the poem, the best we can do is focus and see if we can get our bearings within the poem. How is reality any different? Ashbery’s poems, in their self-consciousness, in their method of decentered unfolding, recreate for us a scene of living, in which we are compelled to participate and imagine in order to reach any tentative understandings about the poem, as about life.

This is what becomes of us as we read – we become more responsive and more perceptive as readers. “The resulting liberation,” Rorty writes,

may, of course, lead one to try to change the political or economic or religious or philosophical status quo. Such an attempt may begin a lifetime of effort to break through the received ideas that serve to justify present-day institutions. But it also may result merely in one’s becoming a more sensitive, knowledgeable, wiser person…the change is not a matter of everything falling nicely into place, fitting together beautifully. It is instead a matter of finding oneself transported, moved to a place from which a different prospect is available. (390 – 391)

Sources

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

Ashbery, John. And the Stars Were Shining. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. Print.

Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

Nussbaum, Martha. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

Voparil, Christopher J., and Richard Bernstein eds. The Rorty Reader. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

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.

When I was 19, I read the Iliad, Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, which I enjoyed, except for the endless lists of boats. Later, I came to realize the Greeks who were listening to this were from the various tribes mentioned, so when their group of ships came up, they were probably shouting out like soccer hoodlums. This didn’t make me enjoy the list, but it gave me a modicum of empathy.

A list, structured with rhythm and imagery in mind can be one of the chief structural devices of both epic/bardic poetry and free verse. Whitman has more listings than an anal retentive suburbanite. How many people here have at least one parent who loves his or her to do list as much as they love their children? Whitman is a list nut: Whitman lists. One of the syntactic clues to listing is an excess of participles and gerunds, what we will call verbs murdered by “ing.” Whitman is the only great poet who gets away with having more “ings” than metaphors. He’s the “ing” champ. Ginsberg, for all his ings, can’t make a pimple on Walt’s gluteus maximus.

Gerunds are often a sign that a poet hates sentences. Maybe he or she hates them on aesthetic grounds. We tend to think poetry should sound floaty, ephemeral, pretty. Maybe he or she hates sentences because he or she does not know what a sentence is. Some people, especially very poetic middle class people, dislike strong verbs. They don’t like strong anything. It seems brutal to them. Strong verbs are violent. They don’t float. They commit. They create the action of the noun: shit happens. I try to make my classes brutal. I say, “From now on, you are allowed only two ‘ings’ per poem, even if you list. Anymore than that will result in ten points off your grade, unless, of course, with great brilliance, you can defend your excess of gerunds to me and the whole class. Screw Whitman!”

Meter is not rhythm. It is a kind of rhythm, but it isn’t rhythm. We can create rhythm without meter, or rhyme. We can even create a pattern of rhythm without meter or rhyme. We can do so by enumeration (a type of list), repetition, refrain, by a system of alliterations. All these devices are used. We can create rhythm by emphasis: a series of imperative sentences, for example, or by suspense (holding off the payoff of a sentence until the very end–something gerunds are good for). I would suggest you all read Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter, Poetic Form because it is a beautifully written and lucid book, especially his chapter on free verse. Every time I read this chapter I grow warm and fuzzy, the way people do during slow dances at proms. I am weird that way. Intelligence and lucidity make me stupid with pleasure. So let’s take a look at a list, or enumerations that does not indulge in “ing.” Let’s look at Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane (My Student Thrown by A Horse)”:

I remember her neck curls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a side long pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought…

This is a list and it gives us information: not only about Jane, but about the voice of the poem. The “I” of the poem seems, at the very least, charmed by her. He is both listing her qualities and building his relationship to her, and the reader’s sense of his feelings for her and it is all done by a list. Let’s steal the technique for a moment:

I remember her nose, red nostrilled by a cold;
and the way she said “danks” when I tossed her a tissue;
and how, she fell asleep, head on my shoulder,
all the way to Chattanooga…

See how we can steal? Musicians cop chord changes all the time. We have thousands and thousands of effects we can build on. Why not? Poets must find a way to render the emotion. Expression depends on devices, on tricks. Sincerity depends on a strategy of approach. By the way, this use of enumeration is also common to prose. Most devices of rhetoric belong neither to prose nor poetry. They belong to utterance. Okay, so here’s another device: parataxis.

In some ways parataxis the opposite of what we just did. There are no conjoining words such as “and”, “but”, “as”, and so forth. An example of parataxis:

Pluck It– Janet Lynch

It is late. The moon rises in the east
over the Episcopalian church.
Why did I give my heart to an idiot?
The moon in the East will not answer me.
Oh moon, oh eastern rising moon,
why do I expect you to say something?
Idiot! Idiot moon. Idiot me.
I keep hoping he will call.
Hope is the thing with feathers.
Pluck it.

There is little order of priority here. Parataxis is what translators of Chinese and Japanese poems often employ. It’s one thing after another.

I figured I’d post these. Many poets employ them without ever knowing their names, and that seems to work, but I like knowing the names of things. There’s something thrilling and wise ass to me about going through the world, saying: “Oh look! A Eurasian tree sparrow!” At age six, I fell in love with a girl because she would say things like “isn’t the planet Venus lovely tonight? Look, Joseph, it is rising over the Chivas Regal billboard sign across the street!” Who wouldn’t love a girl who talked like that? I guess a lot of people might find her a trifle pedantic, but the pedantry of never being allowed to know anything gets on my nerves. It’s as if everyone were being stingy and saving it up for a test or waiting for me to make a mistake so that they could hammer me over the head with my own ignorance. This little girl was generous, and her bestowing of information seemed forthright. She taught me birds, and planets, and little facts about rivers that ran backwards. I loved her. So it is in memory of her, forever lost in the murky waters of my past, that I post rhetorical devices for the next two or three posts, hoping someday, a person reading these might turn to their companion and say: “Oh look James, a stunning example of chiasmus!”

Let’s start with Anadiplosis (and discover others along the way). I love this name. I think of it as “Anna Di Plosis, a stunning old woman from Florence who knows how to hold her scotch (in her herbal tea) Anadiplosis pretty much means to begin the next phrase as you ended the previous. It could be one word, or a couple words. I’ll give you an example:

Wind rousted waves,
waves tousled and torn
torn from all thought and all humor:
Humor me if you will:
Kiss the bright hem of my garment,
garment of silk, and inlaid pearls,
pearls milk white as your foam,
foam that has carried the stars,
and will carry them back,
back where all pearls are born.
kiss the gold sandaled feet of Deirdre,
Deirdre, of the sorrows
this pearl tossed into the sea.

Now even though this poem has no regular meter, it sounds metered. In point of fact, it sounds like something more than meter, and that something more is what I call “invocative pulse.” Whitman has invocative pulse beyond any American poet. Invocative pulse is born from rhetorical devices such as Anaphora, enumeration, apostrophic address, and, in this case, anadiplosis. Invocative pulse functions in both poetry and prose that is meant to give a sense of speechifying– not casual speech, but the speech of orators and bards. When the modernists came along, they purged poetry of more than just regular meter and rhyme. They took away most other rhetorical devices as well. Ginsberg, following along the line of Whitman, made popular again the act of speechifying. To many ears raised on modernist and postmodernist free verse, deeply invocative poetry sounds over blown and tacky, but, to many ears longing to hear something out of ordinary journalistic speech, the free verse written bereft of all rhetorical devices, sounds flat and drab. To those who hunger for sound, a poem stripped of all such devices is neither poetry, nor even well varied prose

No poet escapes rhetoric entirely. I see rhetoric (persuasion by ear) as a sort of ongoing address to the sea, to posterity, even when it’s being used to address a rotary club. Such poems have a sense of ritual. We might call it eloquence. Sounding appeals to us through more than mere information. Using Kenneth Burke’s definition of form, and modifying it somewhat: “The building of and fulfillment of a desire in an audience or reader beyond mere information.”These devices were a vital part of the oral tradition, and one can still hear their echoes in speeches and legal documents. Used in moderation, they don’t have to sound high-falutin. And that is your first mission: write a short prose piece or poem that uses anadiplosis. Example:

Fuck (A blow to The Head)

So, like she clocks her brother Igor upside the head with this enormous cabbage? Cabbages can be lethal, man. Man, the poor dude goes down for the count, I mean he’s out, and starts foaming at the mouth–Mouth, full of drool and blood, no shit, and she’s standing over him like the queen of Sheba… hey, what time is it? It better not be nine dude. Dude, If it’s nine, I’m fucked. Fuck it. I’m fucked.

Certainly not eloquent, but it can help render this idiot’s character just by the way it sounds and, here, the anadiplosis just seems part and parcel of his poverty of speech.

There are other rhetorical devices employed in the first example: personification, apostrophic address (talking to something that does not usually talk back: like the dead, or the sea, or America, or a microwave). Alliteration figures into the poem: wind/ waves, tousled/torn. Anadiplosis could also be considered identical rhyme (rhyming look with look). I want to call rhymes that take place at the end and the beginning of lines Anadiplosic rhyme. Example:

Diving Into The Sea

I dove into the sea,
me, who never swam.
Damn it was cold.
Old men ogled my tits.
Bits of sea weed got caught in my hair.
There is no way I’ll do that again.
Amen.

I guess the point of this beyond giving you some names is to show that there are hundreds of ways to create invocative pulse beyond rhyme and meter. Most of the devices of rhetoric are sonic, rhythmic, and mimetic—usually all three. They originated in a time when words were heard rather than read. Usually, when a poet declares that he writes poems that are meant to be read on the page, and only on the page what he really is telling me is that he hates “sounding.”In a sense, he has been won over to the rhetoric of silence and has a pure streak, but even punctuation “sounds.” It is meant to control and vary the speed at which we read. Even the white space is deeply rhetorical, whether we admit it or not. A period is a call to a full stop. A comma is a lesser pause. All this belongs to rhetoric since it is about pulse, the persuasion of varied or regular pulse.

If you want to escape all rhetoric, you are out of luck. Poets who hate their poems leaving the page often read in as flat and uninteresting a tone as possible. Often, very arrogant haters of poetry read aloud will ignore their own punctuation and just read through the periods, commas, or white space. This is childish and stingy, and is based on no aesthetic merit save meanness and hatred of sounding. Of course, too much rhetorical might can piss anyone off, but violent, “on the page” poets (I love calling them violent) are not being honest. The reader will impose a rhythm as he reads where none exists. Not finding any rhetorical devices, the reader will usually create them. So even if you are poet of the page, and nothing but the page so help me God, it is good for you to know the devices of rhetoric, if only to avoid them.

Assignment: write a poem using apostrophic address, anadiplosis, and alliteration. Then take the poem and strip them of all these devices. Good luck.

Certain sections of broca’s area of the brain are involved both in how words are given syntactical order and how gestures, physical movements are interpreted as flow, as arc, as coherent actions. We know that broca lights up like a pin ball machine when shadow puppets are introduced before the eye. My theory of narrative is that it is arc, gesture, syntactical force the most common of which is what we call a story, but not exclusive to story. We have difficulty seeing narrative as lyrical because it seems more “rule” bound than what we consider lyrical–thus, my students tendency to resist turning their gerunds and participles into active verbs, as if adding “ing” to the verb kept the language safe from being overdetermined and definite. This use of gerunds and participles creates a lot of syntactic ambiguity and I think the brain recognizes this as somehow more “lyrical” because it does not activate the broca region to the degree that a syntactically definite sentence (or concrete sequential gesture/action) would. I have often been called a n intensely narrative poet. Truth is, hardly any of my poems use story as their main agent. There are antidotes or gestures toward action in my poems, but very little plot or tale. If I think of four of my most well-known poems, only “Elegy for Sue Repeezi” is a true narrative. “Ode to Elizabeth,” while using antidotes, is truly an ode–a poem of praise and its narratives (I never have one narrative in any of my poems) are illustrative of a panoramic attitude toward a place rather than telling the story of that place. My poem “Fists” is also without a plot. There are actions and memories, but nothing happens that could be construed as a plot. “Morning at the Elizabeth Arch” is not at all a strict narrative.

So if this is true, why do I have a reputation for narrative rather than lyrical poetry? First, with the exception of Whitman, I loath floating or ambiguous syntax. I find blunt sentences, strong verbs, and concrete gestures to be far more aesthetically appealing than ambiguity. Floating is not a desire of mine. Words with no definite position are active principle tend to be inert and uninteresting to me. I also am not a big fan of conventional plot, or linear progression. I like quick bursts of energy, the voice strong and moving between different registers of speech. this does not fit the groove of what we currently recognize as lyrical poetry. It also is outside the groove of what we call narrative poetry proper (which I often find pedestrian and boring). I am far more interested and turned on by affective–narrative, poetry that excites with many gestures and strong movements. My poems are too cognitive for many contemporary poetic tastes, yet, among the narrative poets, or those more conventionally anchored to narrative, I am considered too lacking in progression and the nuance of progression. What many contemporary poets admire I often find inert and faux-lyrical. I also have no love or particular patience with neutral registers of speech and much of what passes for lyrical shares this very middle brow way of uttering–a sort of ongoing equivocation and mincing around nuances that may or may not exist. No thanks.

So if narrative poetry is not story, or linear progression, or antidote, what is it? It seems to be that form of poetry that engages the syntax of gesture,of action, that lights up the part of the brain that wishes to create an arc, to make sense of an action or series of actions. I write poetry in this manner because, while prose can relay information or story well enough, it can not come close to poetry and line in terms of creating the vital tension and speed of gestures, and it cannot isolate single lines, or rhythmic gestures as well as free verse. Prose, except in its more experimental forms, insists as an ordering agent that is closer to logical progression and priority of information, and its stories then are never pure modes of action. They are set up by exposition. Poetry allows me to dump exposition and cut to the chase. Poetry allows me to move between the ordering of the Broca region (syntax and gestures) and the isolate, monolithic qualities of single words as words–language as a form of pure sound and vocality without locality. Poetry for me is the realm of affective action. line moves, line itself is narrative. It makes sense that much language and experimental poetry, getting rid of coherent meaning or story, would start skewing and playing the line in a far more dramatic way. Why? Because the line is a gesture! The line itself then becomes the story or story arc.And gestures also stimulate the formal, narrative impulses. Narrative does not go away, it simply is transformed into the actions of the lines. As for prose poems like those of James Tate, much of Tate’s work is hyper narrative, a series of gestures that may add up to something very different than a coherent story, but which activates the sense of kinesis, and verbal action I think we need to stop seeing narrative as antithetical to poetry. Lyricism in its manifestation of divine possession and afflatus and ecstasy (thus closer to speech as the gift of tongues, and steeped in mystification) made an unholy marriage with prose a while back. Most of what we now call lyrical poetry is merely neutral middle class equivocation complete with line breaks, and the absence of any strongly gestural speech. In short, little of our current poetry talks with its hands. I believe both the greatest narrative and lyrical poetry is gestural, in infinite process of gesture and flux. My poetry is not so much anchored in the understandable as making a dance out of the understandable and the obvious. I like to set the overt dancing. And the most rhapsodic, non-cognitive poetry which we tend to think is lyrical does the same–only from a covert position that must be careful it is not simply a species of class identification. True lyrical poetry moves. It has its being in movement. Both the genuinely narrative and the genuinely lyrical speak with their hands. Poetry speaks with its hands.

de Toucqueville pretty much makes it understandable to me why I have not had my poetry embraced by The Paris Review or the so called gods of literary merit. He writes, conjecturing on a literature created by people of means and leisure (aristocrats):

Moreover, the long and peaceful enjoyment of such wealth will have induced a certain softness of thought and feeling, and, even in their enjoyments, they will avoid anything too unexpected, or too lively. They would rather be amused than deeply moved; they want to be interested, but not carried away.

This passage explains to me why I have often been shunned by grad students, and fellow writers–why my books are reviewed, often positively and as a form of qualified praise, as exalting the ugly and the incongruous. This explains to me why some of my best students, while learning everything they could, never showed the slightest inclination to respect me as a poet. My work is not “amusing.” I don’t like middle and neutral registers of speech for their own sake, do not find them comforting, nor will I embrace fake experimental poems that are “different” in the same way everyone else is different (Projection by field theory, non-linear progression anyone?). Although the middle class sees a huge difference between Fence and Prairie Schooner, I don’t. One publishes polished, within the norm experimental language poetry, and the other publishes polished, within the norm non-experimental poetry, and both do not venture into any nomenclatures, syntax, or diction beyond the usual careful and self-conscious MFA program. I do not consider them refined, but, rather, bland to the point of putting me to sleep. Most of the elite lit mags out there now, no matter what “camp” they belong to, share one thing in common: bland-speak, a fully professional and neutral register of speech that is intelligent, refined, competent, and devoid of poesis. Alexis de Tocqueville was writing in 1848, pre-Whitman, about an American literary scene that could not stop imitating the worst “aristocratic” pretentions of the Europeans, especially the British. He could very well be describing what passes for “excellence” in American poetry at this moment. Sad… Here’s some more excerpts:

It will sometimes happen that men of means, seeing none but themselves, and only writing for themselves, will entirely lose sight of the rest of the world, and that will make their work far fetched and sham. They will impose petty literary rules for their exclusive use, and that will gradually make them lose first common sense, and then contact with nature.

and

…wanting to talk a language different than the vulgar, they will end up with a brand of aristocratic jargon which is hardly less far from pure speech than the language of the people.

de Tocqueville is conjecturing on an aristocratic literature. Academic poetry has always embraced such an ideal, even when supposedly attacking it. Alexis goes on to prohesy that an American literature sprung truly from the soil of democracy would be lively, but unrefined, poor on rules of thumb, sacrificing refinement to vitality. He claims (and I think rightly) that the great moments in literature for any nation come during the transition periods, the brief but dynamic wars–in this case between aristocratic and democratic influenced literature. Just six years later, Leaves of Grass would make its appearance amid a flowering of works by Emerson, Thoureau, the New England Brahmins, and, at the same time, the first great regionalists, and the far more democratic and “vulgar” writters of the west (Mark Twain). de Toucqueville’s analytical abilities border on demonic intuition. I’ll leave you with a final excerpt in which he writes of a literature born of democracy:

By and large the literature of the democratic will never exhibit the order, regularity, skill, and art characteristic of aristocratic literature; formal qualities will be neglected if not despised. The style will often be strange, incorrect, overburdened and loose, and almost always strong and bold. Writers will be more anxious to work quickly than to perfect details. Short works will be commoner than long books, wit than erudition, imagination than depth. There will be a rude and untutored vigor of thought with great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will strive to astonish more than to please, and to stir passions rather than to charm taste.

Alexis could be defining the warring camps of advocates for the cooked and the raw, the formalists or the beats, the academics or the spoken word artists. He had us down to a science before we became us! He also is smart enough to submit these are extreme views of two tendencies, and to present the fact that there will be many gradations between these two poles, and some of the best writers will arise from the dynamic of these tensions rather than from embracing one or the other way.

Reading de Tocqueville is a lesson in astonishment. In a few pages he did much to clarify for me what the problems confronting American poetry, and my own poetry are. In my case, I am neither academic nor Spoken word, meaning both camps both encourage me yet consider me unpolished (or too polished). At any rate, I can’t recommend a book enough–especially if you want a measured, sober,intelligent guide to your own country.

Christopher Phelps: You mention in the introduction that you “had a hunch these poems existed but could never have imagined their scope.” Was there a specific conversation or event or book that inspired you to put together an anthology of faith-, religion-, spirituality-, belief- and non-belief-themed poems from LGBTIQ poets?

Kevin Simmonds: I can’t remember the exact moment I decided to pursue this, or why, but I’m certain my decision had much to do with Bryan Borland. He started Sibling Rivalry Press and, in my limited interaction with him, I had a strong sense that he could make this anthology possible. Bryan wants to gather and sustain the LGBTIQ community through our literary works. As far as I’m concerned, he’s doing something new in the publishing industry. Unlike many past and current queer publications / publishing houses, SRP actively strives to publish all kinds of writers, regardless of prescribed and more “mainstream” queer sensibilities. I respect and admire that.

CP: You also mention in the introduction that you “have come to prefer faith, which religion scholar Karen Armstrong refers to as ‘the opposite of certainty.’” Doubt has also been referred to as the opposite of certainty. Do you find faith and doubt to be intimately related? Do you think the LGBTIQ communities, in particular, having struggled to find their places in faith communities, are naturally positioned to write poetries that explore a connection between faith and doubt?

KS: Anyone who considers any kind of religion, especially those who grew up in the church, mosque, synagogue, coven, temple—wherever—should experience doubt. There’s such overwhelming hypocrisy, inconsistency, unanswered, unanswerable or badly answered questions. And being LGBTIQ generates more questions that are badly answered, modeled hypocritically by spiritual leaders and their respective flocks. It’s all a mess, really. As I say in the introduction, love is supposed to be the one common denominator, whether you’re Hindu, Jewish, Pentecostal or Muslim. When love and all its fruit come into question, you know you have a problem. A serious problem.

LGBTIQ people have been uniquely positioned—and “called,” even—to critically observe and then expound upon this messiness. Thankfully, mercifully, poets do their work in this and have been, like, forever. Many, like Whitman, took God back from the haters and re-gifted that Presence to us. Whitman made no distinctions between god and God or, for that matter, man, insect and beast. Others poets, like Seattle-based Crystal Ibarra, look at the God of Christianity and His followers and say, in essence, “piss off.” They distinguish themselves and their cherished beliefs from any capital or lowercase deity.

CP: To hate love is such a strange act, isn’t it? The contradiction of which leads haters to think it can’t be love they hate. So they think it’s sex they hate and that sex is what defines us, not love, and to my thinking this is the most destructive aspect of their hypocrisy (never mind the fact that there’s nothing wrong with the ways we have sex). For if someone is told not to (dare to) speak their love, how can it be known to exist? How can it be counted, let alone discounted? Historically and still, we are those for whom love has been a precarious fact, both a given and a problem: a paradox. In Collective Brightness, there are so many testaments to that love, so many paths into and out of the paradox, so many protean forms: tenderness, probity, irony, wistfulness, playfulness, anger. Some take the love paradox face-first, as in Steve Turtell’s “A Prayer”:

His book has a frayed, twisted ribbon.
Ah, the cover is Bible Black.

They sit opposite me,
a religious group visiting Sin City.

I eat my omelet, homefries, toast.
Halfway through the Book Review

I glance up. One of the boys
is staring right at me. Sadness,

maybe even desire in his glance.
I recognize myself in him,

as he wonders about me.
He is handsome and shy.

And afraid. And alone.
Please God, don’t let them

destroy him. Show him
he is loved and worthy.

Keep him from self-hatred.
Give him enough good fortune

to make him happy, enough
misfortune to make him wise.

Others repurpose the love paradox, as in Oliver Bendorf’s “The First Erasure,” redacted from a Westboro Baptist Church hate letter. Still others subvert it with Whitmanic kindness, as Ellen Bass’s poems do, or with Szymborskan sw(v)erve, as in Ana Božičević’s “Death Is All.” But perhaps my favorite of the Bs is Ari Banias’s “Some Kind of We,” how hard it reaches into the regress, into our bag of bags, to find a hypothetical ‘we’—hanging a lantern on what I love about our contemporary mess, its precariousness peeking out of itself to ask if things might be okay, if we might have some minimum in common:

These churchbells bong out
one to another in easy conversation
a pattern, a deep ringing that wants to say
things are okay,
things are okay—
but things, they are not okay
I can’t trust a churchbell, though I would like to
the way I can trust
that in this country, in every house and in most every
apartment, there somewhere is a cabinet or drawer
where it’s stashed, the large plastic bag
with slightly smaller mashed together plastic bags inside it;
it is overflowing, and we keep adding,
bringing home more than we need, we should have
to weave a three piece suit of plastic bags
a rug, a quilt, a bed of bags even, anything
more useful than this collection this excess
why am I writing about plastic bags, because
it is this year in this country and I am this person
with this set of meanings on my body and the majority of what I have,
I mean, what I literally have the most of in my apartment, more
than plants, more than forks and spoons and knives combined, more than chairs
or jars or pens or books or socks, is plastic bags,
and I am trying to write, generally and specifically,
through what I see and what I know,
about my life (about our lives?),
if in all this there can still be—tarnished,
problematic, and certainly uneven—a we.

Do you think things will be okay? What’s a poet’s political/critical role in this? Is private testimonial enough, or should we be testing our poetries less often in the college cloister and more loudly in the streets?

KS: Life is messy and things will never be OK. That’s my take on it. Yet something deeply observed and felt, something like the paragraphed observation you just made, can be transmitted beyond the “college cloister.” I’m confident of this. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gathered all these resilient poets with their mind and spirit-altering poems. I’m their pusher. Remember that term? That’s what they used to call drug dealers back in the day.

I’m mixing metaphors like crazy but we need everything in our love arsenal—Ari’s “we,” Ellen’s wide, wide road, Oliver’s redaction and Steve’s quiet wisdom. Yes, that’s all complete metaphor but we live by assigning meanings to things, don’t we? Oliver turned an ignorant and hateful letter into a hymn…

I can’t speak for anyone but I’m fairly confident that every single poet in Collective Brightness feels called to “minister” to the unenlightened. They do it through their poetry, which is activism. Publishing and doing readings are activism.

We are taking it to the streets. I don’t know of any other anthology—shit, I don’t know of any book—that has a website with all these writers reading their work. And once we start these readings all over the world, there’s no stopping us. And we’re reading outside the rarefied halls of the academy or queer bookstores. We’re reading in museums and churches and temples and Islamic community centers for goodness sake!

CP: How do you feel about the role of poetry itself as argument or rhetoric? Many of the world’s religious documents are written in what is now considered poetry, but most of the fighting about religion happens at the level of prose—literal quotation, formulaic exegesis, anemic analogy. I sometimes wonder if the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins and company, might be more persuasive if they stopped using logic exclusively—the quotient of logic in faith is limited—and started using some poetry. (I don’t want to pass along that suggestion because I fear it might work. For disclosure, I’m a questioning agnostic: I like my God unknown, not excised.) Anyway, the argument has been made that the poetries in religions, the moderates among the fundamentalists, are what keeps them alive and kicking, and had religions just been their fundamentalisms, they wouldn’t have survived this long. They would have been simply debunked. But their (mostly undeliberate) “survival strategies” were to moderate themselves, to modulate themselves to the facts. So some atheists think the onus of bad faith is actually on the moderates—on the poetry, so to speak. What are your thoughts on this issue?

KS: Christopher, yes! Some will resent me for this, and I’ve said this before on the record: I consider the imperialists (ethnically or culturally Caucasian)—the people who want to control and enslave and codify—the enemies of poetry. All the unenlightened natives, with their ancient poems and songs and folk tales, know what they know in ways many of us never will. Yes, we need the imperialists for their logic and prose, their science and medicine and all that but not when it’s all wrapped around the throat and smothers those ideas that need and are poetry. Do you understand what I’m saying here? Push the spiritual beyond its poetry into prose and you replace mercy and grace with rules and edicts, healthy uncertainty into… you get what I’m after, don’t you?

As you know, all the poems in the anthology are organized solely by the authors’ surnames. So when something like Jen Hofer’s “Resolved” and Fanny Howe’s “The Apophatic Path” turn up on facing pages, I must raise my arms in surrender and praise! Both poems refuse to codify anything other than, well, the impossibility of pinning anything down. It’s like these poems are in perfect unison. Regarding Fanny, I know of no other contemporary poet who’s written so eloquently about and through apophatic theology, which defines God through negation.

My answers here are very circuitous, aren’t they? I resist talking about poetry as argument and rhetoric. Of course, my own work has its values and those values are obvious, I think. And I leave it at that. I’m interested in where the poems might lead instead of what their intentions might be. This may be unclear because my mind doesn’t work and process that way. I’m convinced that art can exist and function as argument and rhetoric but I don’t concern myself with that. Perhaps it’s because I’m stuck, in my own work, on what I see as two very different enterprises: explaining and expressing. Doesn’t rhetoric require explaining things? Having a complex series of wires? Whereas expressing is more abstract, open to interpretation and gestural? Ha! Do you see how funny this is? I’m returning to an earlier idea about codifying.

Moderates make me sick but the world would be gone without them. My partner is a moderate and he’s kept me from the window sill more times than I care to remember. You should know that I received many, many submissions for Collective Brightness and, honestly, I’m unable to remember any extremists—diagnosed through their poetry, of course. No ALL CAPS and !!!!!!!! or, conversely, those who had given in to apathy. In other words, LGBTIQ poets are survivors. Do you hear me? Survivors. And I’m sure there’s a scientific law or natural order of things that privileges life forms that, though able to survive on the extreme edges of things, subsists and flourishes in more stable and moderate conditions.

CP: Rhetoric need not explain. It need only persuade. But sometimes it explains in order to persuade. I’d tend to agree that rhetoric can get in the way of poetry’s other purposes. I suspect that many poets sometimes discover a rhetorical purpose in one of their poems after it was written, and that’s probably the way it should work. I do like when I feel I can discern at least some of an author’s intentions—so that meaning is shared, rather than separately brought, by writer and reader, to the table—but I also enjoy poetry that subverts intentions. In that mystery, other flowers bloom. I love Fanny Howe’s “The Apophatic Path,” how it speaks in the loveliest of tongues. In section 2 especially but in the whole poem I find a kind of rhetoric manifesting “what isn’t / is what is”—I might call it winning the argument by wiles, by charm. She even wins it by music, her rhymes irresistible because confident but unscripted. I leave that poem utterly convinced that not knowing is the way to know:

2

Basic science

will blend ghostness
among enemies.

Now bodies cemented

down in monster denominations
to be counted

one of the walking
corpses I see whitening

and emptying
under a sun

makes me know me
to be no one.

But of course a story, simply told, can be powerful rhetoric and testament, too. When I read Joseph Ross’s “The Upstairs Lounge, New Orleans, June 24, 1973,” my stomach hurt and I began to sweat. Nothing rhetorical needs adding (if rhetoric is sometimes an afterthought). The story and its context and the lyricism of its unfolding already do the trick:

2

Someone poured lighter fluid
onto the stairs that rose

from the sidewalk to the bar,
then anointed those slick stairs

with a match, creating a Pentecost
of fire and wind

that ascended the stairs
and flattened the door

at the top, exploding into the room
of worshippers, friends, lovers,

two brothers, their mother.
The holy spirit was silent.

No one spoke a new language.

3

Some escaped. Many died with
their hands covering their mouths.

One man, George, blinded by smoke
and sirens, his throat gagged

with ash, got out and then
went back for Louis, his partner.

They were found, a spiral
of bones holding each other

under the white
baby grand piano

that could not save them.

4

Then came the jokes.
A radio host asked:

What will they bury
the ashes of the queers in?

Fruit jars, of course.
One cab driver hoped

the fire burned their
dresses off.

I think of the statement William Carlos Williams made in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die every day for lack of what is found there.” Are there poems of especially fine storytelling that have caused a physical reaction in you?

KS: Joseph’s poem is striking because it’s so polyphonic. I appreciate poems that can manage poetry, storytelling and historical reportage simultaneously. I had a feeling Williams’s quote would make its way into this conversation. It had to.

The anthology is bursting, really, with poems erecting mythic stories and willing the reader into sublimity. Read that any way you’d like. Edward Debonis’s “Sacred Heart,” Amy Tudor’s “What We Love,” Dan Bellm’s “Brand new” and Moe Bowstern’s “I Give Up” transform the reader—simply by virtue of the momentary reading. The engagement, itself, must emit something into the universe: a heat, a wave, something measurable. And we mustn’t forget Benjamin Grossberg’s “Beetle Orgy,” from which the collection’s title is taken. We are exalted when he writes:

and God, also, comes to some knowledge
as if for the first time, is distracted and pleased
by the collective brightness of human skin. . . .

CP: “Willing the reader into sublimity”—I really like that. It does seem like willing, in at least two senses, is at the heart of both surviving suffering and salvaging from it. “I Give Up” strikes me as a powerful meditation that willed the writer (then reader) into sublimity:

Their wingbeats on the water
Sound like applause,
Like forgiveness.

Speaking of erecting mythic stories, how wonderfully taut is Joseph Legaspi’s “The Homosexual Book of Genesis”? And I’m glad you mentioned “Beetle Orgy,” a poem of such well-tended analogy: our being the accidental god of beetles, and not so different from them; God being like us, curious, distracted, pleased.

God leaning over the house on a casual tour
of the wreck of the world, noticing ornamentation
where it wasn’t expected.

May I ask my question in the form of an exclamation point?

KS: Joseph’s Genesis poem is funny, isn’t it? There are many other funny poems. R. Zamora Linmark’s “Bino And Rowena Make a Litany to Our Lady of the Mount” slays. And Megan Volpert’s tinybig poems are incredibly funny and deep. Here is “A place without work is no heaven to me”:

Sometimes during orgasm I see the faces of dead friends. They are waving and smiling with laughter from up and across, happy I have checked in by flinging a moment of condensed purity over the wall between us. I believe they are working as much as I am, finishing business and settling their accounts. Glad as I am to see them, sometimes one of these faces disappears where I can’t get it back again, and I celebrate that they have found enough peace to get recycled. Whatever the methods, a soul is the part of humanity that is a perpetual motion machine.

Compare those to Atsusuke Tanaka’s “Like a Fruit Floating on Water” and Seung-Ja Choe’s “I, From Early On,” two poems that are anything but funny. Rather, they are profoundly sad.

CP: I love how differently two people can read the same poem. You read Legaspi’s poem as funny, and I read it as ingeniously plangent: a tight little lyric, turning Genesis on its nose, and arriving at desire redoubled, with that choice word suggesting natural inevitability, “calcified.” I really enjoyed Volpert’s funnyserious, tinybig, prosepoetic epigrams, too. And to your list of funny poems, I have to add my favorite, Jill McDonough’s “My History of CPR,” which doesn’t resist being poignant in the midst of its humor:

In the 1700s, once we could print stuff, a guy
in the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned
posted broadsides like our cartoon Heimlich how-tos,
except they used fs for ss, suggested blowing
smoke up the patient’s ass. For real: somebody
should blow with Force into the Lungs, by applying
the Mouth to the Mouth of the Patient, closing his Nostrils
with one hand, while somebody else should throw the smoke
of Tobacco up the Fundament into the Bowels,
by means of a Pipe. At least they used a pipe.
That broadside says if you want to make mouth to mouth
less indelicate, it may be done through a Handkerchief.
Now I go to the movies, see Clive Owen punch
a fresh corpse in the chest. Human, angry with death,
at the dead, our puny lives. Imagine the first
time that worked, the look on the cavewoman’s face
when her cavehusband coughs a little, blinks, comes to.
Of course you’d hit the corpse, of course you’d try
to force air in, breath for the beloved, the lost
one, reverse everything. In Second Kings
Elijah mouth to mouthed a little boy,
revived him—maybe the first medical record,
first EMT: he put his mouth on his mouth,
his eyes on his eyes, and the flesh of the child waxed warm.

I’ve heard that some poetry workshops advise against that sort of thing. . . What’s the mantra? Be straight with your tone? (Homophone your tone?) I think I prefer my tones queer. Are there moments of tonal ambiguity in the anthology that you find particularly successful?

KS: Frankly, it’s difficult to write a funny poem. And today, there is no shortage of smart-alecky poems, which I find off-putting, juvenile and entirely forgettable. Megan, especially, seems to be a funny, razor-sharp person, so her poems happen to be funny. She’s not trying to be funny. There’s a difference. Collective Brightness is rife with poems that amplify the ironical. Irony is hilarious.

Choe’s poem is hideously dark and bleak and the dismal extremity makes me laugh. I’m familiar with Korean culture and it’s intense. Koreans feel and express very deeply. Yet, as an American, when faced with such absolute bleakness in a poem, a first-person lament like that, I can’t help but laugh. To be that down on your life and write about it. Do you understand where I’m coming from? The poem is much like one of David’s psalms. The sheer fact that the person has the wherewithal to write at all is cause for praise and thankfulness. From Choe’s “I, From Early On”:

No parents raised me
I slept in rat holes and fed on the livers of fleas
Blankly going to my death, anywhere would do,
I was nothing from early on.

We brush by each other
like falling comets, so
don’t say that you know me.
I don’t know you I don’t know you
You thee thou, happiness
You, thee, thou love
That I am alive,
is just an eternal rumor.

CP: I agree with you about smart-aleckiness. I prefer true playfulness, which it’s sometimes confused with: playfulness that isn’t juvenile, but is child-like in its curiosity and derring-do. I think there are too many gags in poetry, based, instead of on wordplay and insight, on a kind of literary sarcasm: irony’s jealous, passive-aggressive sibling that rolls a weary eye and works to undermine everything, including irony. Whereas in Tanaka’s poem, and in Choe’s poem, and in Kazim Ali’s “Home,” for that matter, and in dozens of others, the ironies don’t need opponents: they simply say, “here.” In this rat hole. Under this blanket. On this pond. Something has been found and lost, lost and found. Hear how many echoes patience knows. How absolute bleakness can remind us there is cause for praise. How few, but how sweet, the provisions of survival. Truly, it’s a beautiful collection, Kevin. Are there any final anecdotes, or wisdom words, or poem lines you’d like to share?

KS: “How few, but how sweet, the provisions of survival.” This is why I enjoy interviewers who are themselves poets, Christopher. These poets come from all over the world and find, conjure or imagine these provisions. In Kyoto. In London. In Singapore. In Australia. In San Francisco. In Atlanta and Cape Cod and Miami and Houston. Poets who’ve turned away from religion and those who are anchors of the congregation. These poets are surviving and their poems are proof, artifacts. Collective Brightness, then, is more than a book of poems. Of this, I’m certain.

___________________________________________

Kevin Simmonds is a poet, musician, and photographer originally from New Orleans. He majored in music at Vanderbilt University, and later received a doctorate in music education from the University of South Carolina and a Fulbright fellowship to Singapore where he launched the first-ever poetry workshop in Changi Prison. He wrote the musical score for the Emmy-Award-winning HOPE: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica and edited Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof (University of South Carolina Press, 2012), a posthumous collection of poems by Carrie Allen McCray-Nickens. His debut collection of poems is Mad for Meat (Salmon Poetry, 2011).

More information can be found at www.collectivebrightness.com and www.kevinsimmonds.com.

“The artist is a receptacle of emotions come from no matter where: from the sky, the earth, a piece of paper, a passing figure, a cobweb. This is why one must not discriminate between things. There is no rank among them. One must take one’s good where one finds it.” Picasso wrote this well before Mary Ruefle started publishing books, but if his words could be an egg, Ruefle’s Selected Poems would hatch right out of it. Her speakers—obsessed both with beauty and with their inability to “attain a balance/ between important and unimportant things”— over and over fuse the world’s grandest abstractions and minutest details in efforts to find meaning somewhere in the middle.

Naturally, with so many things to include, Ruefle’s poems jump around a lot from one place/time/feeling/speaker to another. In “Timberland,” we go from “Paul’s Fish Fry in Bennington, Vermont” to “the delta/ of the Pearl River” to “Actually none of this has happened yet”—I think in this poem we’re simultaneously in the past, present, and future—but this movement, however quick, never feels random just for the sake of randomness. In each of Ruefle’s lines we find the perfect amount of surprise: enough to disorient and delight and keep our synapses firing, but not so much we get frustrated with nonsense or lack of a larger poetic context. This tightrope act of simultaneously balancing and sorting—and of course, the sheer beauty and originality of these poems—invites us to fully take part in Ruefle’s attempts to make sense of the world (and feel enchanted enough to want to keep doing so).

Because the entirety of the world Ruefle wants to encompass is so overwhelming, it is often the little details that give her speakers something they can use to ground themselves. In “Thistle,” for example, a “we” travels around the world, unexpectedly finding thistles in every location, which grants the thistle the critical roles of creating meaning and connecting the world, kind of like the horn symbol in The Crying of Lot 49.

But Ruefle’s search feels much less unidimensional than Pynchon’s. Her conclusions—while sometimes arbitrary—don’t just lead you on a wild goose chase. At the end of “Thistle,” you’re fully aware the thistle is a kind of random stand-in for meaning, but the ending still feels thrilling and complete:

O ruthless thistle, match in the dark,
you can talk to anyone about the weather
but only to your closest friends
can you mention the light.

Ruefle’s speakers struggle with questions of balance and meaning in multiple forms: Embrace togetherness, or seek isolation? Accept the risk of loss in exchange for aliveness, or don’t? Stay in the imagination, or move into the real world? On one level, each poem chronicles a constant process of decision-making. But the poems aren’t just saying yes or no to a world, whether real or imagined. They’re exploring the price associated with each answer—and because everything in Ruefle’s world is ultimately connected, yes and no aren’t even separate answers. To make the process more complicated, Ruefle acknowledges that choosing an answer or ascribing meaning to something could be based on a fiction: We aren’t omniscient, and we may never know the price of our choice (or really, even what questions we’re answering). We just have to make peace with guessing and assigning meaning.

Ruefle doesn’t usually examine “no” as an option (because unless you’re going to kill yourself, it isn’t, and because her world is just too darn magical not to), but she does spend whole poems asking what if yes could be less troublesome, more embracing. Why does yes have to be so costly? Imagine what could be possible if it weren’t! “One wants so many things,” says the speaker in “The Intended.” And those things are both greater and smaller than any one person can have in any one life. Ruefle intimates this by constantly disorienting us—changing geographic location, scale, speaker, and who the speaker is referring to, as if trying to embrace it all and write it down before it disappears:

One wants simply, said the lady,
to sit on the bank and throw stones
while another wishes he were standing
in the Victoria and Albert Museum
looking at Hiroshige’s Waterfall:
one would like to be able to paint
like that, and Hiroshige wishes
he could create himself out of the
Yoro sea spray in Mino province where
a girl under the Yoro waterfall wants
to die, not quite sure who her person is

The omniscient speaker starts out talking directly to the reader (or maybe herself), with “One wants so many things …” and then quickly moves into narration about other people and their inner lives. In just a dozen lines, we hear the most intimate thoughts of no fewer than five people; move from an unnamed body of water to London and then to Japan; and engage with both the simplest human desires and some of the most complex. Notably, all these desires feel equally painful and urgent—Ruefle makes no value distinction between wanting to throw stones and wanting to die. These quick transitions portray a world in which not only does “one want so many things,” but all those things are interconnected and important. By not valuing one desire more than another—and by connecting them—Ruefle makes them feel universally difficult and totally human. (Even the structure says so; the whole poem is one long sentence.) Eventually the poem returns to “the lady” and ends on a single, concrete, graspable image, as many poems in this collection do. The implication is that even though the world is full of things and every day is “thrown in the sieve” to figure out which ones are important, one way to make the world real and survivable is to focus on a single thing and ascribe meaning to that thing:

one can barely see the cherry blossoms
pinned up in little buns like the white hair
of an old woman who was intended for this hour,
the hour intended to sit simply on the bank
at the end of a long life, throwing stones,
each one hitting the water with the tick of
a hairpin falling in front of a mirror.

That last image is so crisp and mundane, so earnest that “life goes on no matter what we do,” that in my Whitmanesque high I nearly missed the fact that just before it Ruefle slipped in that nagging word from the title: intended. Sure, the speaker put the day through a sieve and came up with lots of unfulfilled human desires, but this “intended” bit is the biggest desire of all—the desire for our desires to have meaning, to be part of some larger picture. We want access to all the possibilities, but we want them to mean something. We want our “yes” to count. Crucial to Ruefle’s poem-world, though, is that she didn’t end on the intendedness—she didn’t totally commit to it. The possibility of a larger picture, or even the desire for one, is just another desire to be weighed against all the others.

Ruefle is not reticent about her struggle between wanting the safety of certainty and accepting that life is uncertain (and that embracing life means embracing that uncertainty). In “Why I Am Not A Good Kisser,” she literally embraces the world too much to function well in it and then reacts by shutting it out altogether, in a yes-then-no move:

Because I open my mouth too wide
Trying to take in the curtains behind us
And everything outside the window
Except the little black dog
Who does not like me
So at the last moment I shut my mouth.

At first, the physical opening and shutting—certainties both—are the only possible responses to the situation, neither of which satisfy. But later in the poem, the speaker champions simultaneous certainty and uncertainty, both physically and spiritually:

… what quality goes to form
A Good Kisser, especially at this moment, & which you
Possess so enormously—I mean when a man is capable
Of being in uncertainties, Mysteries & doubts without me
I am dreadfully afraid he will slip away
While my kiss is trying to think what to do.

So perhaps rather than deciding something so stark as yes or no—between “letting go/ all the animals at once/ from his bosom, or welcoming/ them one by one/ into his arms” (“The Beginnings of Idleness in Assisi”)—these poems are explorations of what it means to accept the uncertainty of the world (the yes and no) as it really is. On one hand, the “dark risk” of rejecting the world “is not to grow” (“Patient Without an Acre”). On the other, embracing it could mean that “The porcupine went into a culvert and didn’t come out/ And that was the end of my happiness.” For Ruefle there is no definitive answer but to struggle against her own sensitive, perceptive nature, and in this way find beauty without grasping the world too tightly, as in “The Cart”:

Yet I admire its gloves. Hands are unbearably beautiful.
They hold on to things. They let things go.

This anxiety Walt Whitman has about poetry emerges in the poem “Song of Myself,” as Whitman seeks to establish a taxonomy of poetry, a system classifying what is good poetry, what bad, but the structure he establishes keeps collapsing.

The poem is one Whitman’s fullest explanation of his theory of language and poetry, perhaps even more clear than the few prose pieces on the subject that bear his name, and it serves to show and highlight his theoretical conceptions, but also to show how his work pervaded by a fear, a deep anxiety about poetry that inflicts his poems.

He works out, in the poem, a three-tiered idea of poetry. The lowest tier, the first level, is the poetry of refinement, and death. It is the poetry that actually goes by the name “poetry” in the poem, and reflects Whitman’s ideas about language, and how language can stagnate, separate from life and reality, and be dead. The second tier is the poetry of people using everyday language — “speaking.” In the poem, Whitman praises speaking, which is in accordance with his theory about the American people and the vitality of their everyday talk, reflected, for example, in his love of slang, place names, nicknames and technical terms, but speaking is still not entirely free and safe from the death that inflicts “poetry.” “Speaking” has the life that Whitman wants, but it’s not entirely stable, and it can be buried, it can be silenced, and it can die. This leads him to a third tier of poetic language, the one he calls “singing.” “Singing” is vivified and revitalized language, language that’s not convention and not a system of signifiers, but which truly is alive, is life, is reality. “Singing” is also the elevated from of common speech, the form that raises the life that exists in language as it is actually spoken by Americans to a new level, in a sense beautifying it. It liberates language. It is, then, the opposite of “poetry,” for poetry takes common speech and refines it, strangles it, and kills the life it had. This means, of course, that “speech,” though praised by Whitman, celebrated by him, is also the site of a certain anxiety, as it is fragile and in danger of dying. There’s always the possibility it will be smothered.

Up to this point, of course, the account of poetry presented in “Song of Myself” doesn’t create any problems. It fits quite nicely with the image of Whitman as great emancipator who begins and ends barbarically yawping. No sooner is the system constructed, though, then it begins to fall apart. It collapses, and deconstructs.

The death that marks “poetry” as bad is also, Whitman finds as the poem progresses, as he sets out the ideal of “singing,” a part of “singing.” The best poetry always has a little of what makes the worst poetry the worst. It’s haunted, and always already involved with the death, the dying, the stagnated, merely signifying language that is not vivified. No sooner is the three-part structure of poetry set up in “Song of Myself,” then it disintegrates, and a panic sets in, a desperate worry about the worth of poetry. As he talks about “singing,” the poet becomes paranoid, and fears the whole project has, before his eyes, flatly failed.

Very early in the poem, Whitman moves to attack poetry and also to separate his poem from that which is commonly called poetry. There’s a bit of a sarcastic edge to the lines 30-37 and a kind of dismissal that could even be considered reminiscent of the disses of rap battles: “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?” Whitman asks. “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems … You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres of books” (32, 33, 35).

Whitman, here, is degrading poetry as such, and also setting his poem, his project, up against poetry. Even if one takes this as mere bravado, though, the braggadocio or the posturing of a young man who wants to challenge the establishment to a battle, the terms of his dismissals are important. The problem of “poetry,” as Whitman sees it, is death. Poetry – the poetry he’s rejecting and is opposing himself to – is a thing of ghosts, and sees with the eyes of dead. It is dead because of it’s distance from the reader, from the reader’s own body, life, breath and experience, is that way because it is a thing of reckoning and practice, which is exactly the kind of refinement Whitman thinks has marked the whole tradition of poetry, and which doesn’t befit America. “The whole tendency of poetry,” Whitman said in a newspaper interview in 1876, “has been toward refinement. I have felt that was not worthy of America. Something more vigorous, al fresco, was needed.”

Whitman further pushes this idea of the wrong-headed tendency of refinement in line 49, where he opposes elaboration, which is “no avail,” and opposes it to himself and his life, his soul, and other people’s lives and life in general and their souls too. “While they discuss I am silent,” Whitman writes, “and go and bathe and admire myself” (56).

Of course the contrasts here between death and life, books and experience, debates and one’s own glorious nakedness, fit neatly into the frame of Whitman as a Romantic writer, the frame that’s taught to American high school students and which works to give Whitman the reputation he has with Beat poets and ad agencies alike, but it also fits with his theory of language. The language he opposes is the language which Swinton’s book called “dead mechanism.” The language he wants is the language that is vitalizes, “something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground” (“Slang in America”). The contrasts and oppositions of Romanticism also have this poetic shape to them, and when Whitman lays out, early in one of his most famous and most recognized poems, his poetic project, he’s using that specific theory of language to set the terms.

Having more or less started with a sign declaring the death of so-called “poetry,” Whitman’s “Song of Myself” then turns to the second level in the tier of language, that of common, everyday speech. Poetry is contrasted with “voice,” with “talking,” which is better and more natural than “poetry,” but is tainting (from the start) with an anxiety:

“Speech” is presented as something that cannot be quite trusted, since it can be silenced, as in line 164, where it is “buried” – as though dead, like poetry – and “restrain’d by decorum” – also like poetry – even though it is, by nature, something that “is always vibrating” and howls. Speech, or voice, is pictured by Whitman to be something that has vitality, this life he wants his poem to have, and yet it is also something that isn’t free from the danger of death. Common people, the one he wants to celebrate, can be oppressed and suppressed, and made to act like they’re dead, even if they’re actually not (145), and the same is true with their language. “Voices” can be made “long dumb” (508), becoming like poetry. Whitman doesn’t want to attack talking, because it is, actually, a force for life that just happens to be dead or to look like it’s dead, unlike poetry with is an agent of death. He does want to distinguish and distance himself from it, though. The poet-author knows that “the talkers were talking” (38) and what they were talking about, but finds it important to point out that he, himself, is not talking.

Whitman will want to celebrate and appreciate speech, both in the ways it’s normally conceived of and as this second tier of his taxonomical account of poetry, but it’s still problematic for him. It isn’t free from the problem of “poetry.”

This can be seen when the poet engages in speech, and then wrestles with it, almost epically battling with “speech” that, personified, tries to trap him, trick him, lock him into this limitation of articulation. “Speech is the twin of my vision” (566), Whitman declares, which might be taken as a commitment to “speech,” but then that line’s immediately followed by an explanation of an adversarial relationship: Whitman isn’t attacking speech, but speech is attacking him. “It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically, / Walt you contain enough, why don’t you let it out then?” (567-568). The poet then resists “speech,” counters it, argues against it, rejects it, and ultimately rises above it. “Come now,” he says, “I will not be tantalized, you conceive too much of articulation/ Do you know O speech how the buds beneath you are folded?” (569).

Mark Baulerlein, in his work, has identified this section as the center of the struggle in Leaves of Grass, as Whitman fights to find “a language adequate to a certain emotional-spiritual import” (55), as he struggles against what Ezra Greenspan calls the “representational limitations of language.” Whitman is fighting against language here, fighting for it to be more than mere system of signs, and as it threatens to trap him in he attempts to resist, He addresses speech, here, almost as God addresses Job from the whirlwind, attempting to take the position of having confounded “speech,” which is too small for him. Speech, like a mere mortal inappropriately attempting to surmount the divine, has tried to reduce Whitman to something containable (just as “poetry” is a reduction of the life force of “speech”), but that reduction would, if Whitman, be a reduction unto death, and he rejects it:

My final merit I refuse you, I refuse putting from me what I really am.
Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you

Writing and talking do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and everything else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic (576 – 581).

Whitman is still placing “speech,” in his taxonomy of poetry, on a level above poetry – he, after all, is enthusiastically committed to everything that even seems democratic, and he will declare that talking is “the sound I love, the sound of the human voice” (585) – but he himself is doing something different. He is not one of the “talkers talking,” and has separated himself from “speech,” risen above to do something more.

What Whitman really wants to do with this second tier is save it. He wants to liberate it and elevate it, empowering the talkers with a new kind of language in the same way he has been liberated and has transcended. He knows a different type of speech, a different poetry than “poetry,” a life-ful language with which Whitman can come and set the talkers free. He knows “the password primeval” (506), the “sign of democracy”; he can “Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” (501, 502); through him, dead voices are resurrected, as he says, “Through me forbidden voices,/Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,/Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d” (516-518).

He can do all this, as presented in Leaves of Grass, because he knows this different kind of poetry, “singing.” This is the third tier, the top tier, of his taxonomy, which is presented, in the poem, as a discovery, a revelation. If the poem is taken as a narrative, Whitman engaged in “speech” and then with “speech,” and then, in rejecting it, in finding it not quite free, not quite liberated from the stagnation and stink of “poetry,” he finds this new thing, this higher plane of language with which he can transfigure and clarify the “voices veil’d” (517), the voices “long dumb” (508), “buried” and “restrain’d by decorum” (164). Right after Whitman rejects “speech” as insufficient, he discovers music. He sits silent and listens and he discovers music, starting with, hearing first, the birds. Returning the reader, perhaps, to the revelation (and the submerged anxiety) of the bird’s he heard as a child on fish-shaped Paumanok, Whitman hears “the bravuras of birds” (584) and that acts to open him up to a long list of sounds, which are, notably, not “voice,” not “talking,” even when and where they might have been taken that way by another, but music, singing and song.

The revelation of hearing the bird – this one and the first one too – is pronounced by Whitman with the sigh, “I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,/Ah this indeed is music – this suits me” (599-600). In the context of the actual poem this is, of course, also literal music, with singing soprano and violoncello and keyed cornet, but as it “shakes mad-sweet pangs through [his] belly and breast” (598), “whirls [him] wider than Uranus files” (604) and “wrenches such ardor from [him] [he] did not know [he] possess’d” (605), he is opened to “feel the puzzle of puzzles,/ And that we call Being” (609 – 610). The bird reveals music to Whitman, and music reveals Being.

Following the revelation of music in Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s lists become longer, more exuberant. For example, poem 33 starts with the exclamation of “Space and Time!” and lasts, in that ecstatic mode, for 160 lines, with the narrator declaring himself liberated, “a free companion” (817) able to sleep with any bride (818) and speak in any voice he wants (819), since he is unencumbered by any law, unrestrained by any guard (801-803). It is as if, the poetry worked out, the justification of the poem itself established, Whitman is free.

He intends to use this freedom, this revelation that leads to liberation, to breathe life into speech. This Whitman, singing Whitman, is Whitman the liberator.

There is, in Leaves of Grass, a whole list of people who do not sing, but use “voice,” for example preachers and scientists, slaves and a sea captain, people whom he does not want to reject, but whom he, with his singing, can elevate to singing by singing them. His poem, his song, which is of himself but also of them, is intended here to be and is expressed here as being a manifestation or a realization of their spirit. “I act as the tongue of you,” he says, “Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d” (1248 – 1249). This music is understood to have a kind of salvific function. “Music rolls,” Whitman says, “but not from an organ” (1061), coming to the aid of the speakers whose struggle for the breath of freedom he has. The prime example of this function of his singing and how he places “voice” in this middle tier of the taxonomy is the dying general who speaks to the narrator at the end of poem 33.

In line 869 and 870, Whitman writes, “Again gurgles the mouth of my dying general, he furiously waves with his hand,/He gasps through the clot Mind not me – mind – the entrenchments.” Here speech is presented as a) difficult, b) involved with death, c) as something the reader and the poet should ignore or transcend, precisely for the sake of the speaker. The general cannot go on, and can barely utter the words he needs to utter, but Whitman can do it for him, with his singing.

This brings us back to the title of the poem, “Song of Myself,” and the most the famous couplet, “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,/I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” (1332 – 1333). This is Whitman’s idea and ideal of poetry. This account, in Leaves of Grass, fits into Whitman’s Transcendentalism and his Romanticism and is how Whitman is typically viewed. Whitman is seen yawping, singing this barbaric, al fresco song, a sort of noble savage of verse. He is free from anxiety and invites his readers to come and romp, howl, dance naked and liberate themselves. Yet, just as “speech” was infected with the illness of “poetry,” so also “singing.” At the moment poetry – the new poetry Whitman has conceived as his project, his life’s work – is supposed to take off and soar, to expand ever out like the universe “wider and wider” “expanding, always expanding” (1185) in unstopped and unstoppable growth, the anxiety of form and theory is there again. It vexes; it depresses; it comes crushing down. The bird, at the moment of the yawp, accuses him of being tame and translatable (1331). He claims this organ-like music rolls forth from his breast, but inside that is this cavity of anxiety that won’t stop worrying him, “Ever the verxer’s hoot! hoot! hoot! (1067).

Scattered throughout the poem are these little lines speaking of doubt. There is this fear, bubbling up, that his song is no more liberated than “speech,” that is, after all, a poem. Not quite congruent with the image of Whitman, the singing savior, the one who’s come to set us free with a song, to make us as free as his uncut beard, there are these moments of despair that speak of a man bothered, a man who would have to rewrite and revise almost until the end of his life: “I know the sea of torment,” the narrator says, “doubt, despair and unbelief.”

He is, despite protestations (1289), alarmed by death. It’s not the death of his body that worries Whitman, though, but the death that seems to seize the words as they grow cold and lifeless on the page. The poem, Whitman’s masterwork, ends with this note of anxiety and fear of failure entirely entangled with declarations of hope. He concludes with the despondent note that “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean” (1341), and counters “But I shall be good health to you nevertheless” (1342), and then counters and counters again, perhaps in a debate with himself, perhaps in an oscillation between hope and despair, “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you” (1344 – 1346).

It’s a failure Whitman feels, too. The anxiety that underlies many of the poems, that seems to bubble up in them, sometimes erupts in his work in full-fledged declarations of failure. The problem of poetry sometimes seems too much to bear, and Whitman, in a poem, disavows poetry, gives up the project of vivifying words and putting life – his life – into a poem. “Conveying a sentiment and invitation, I utter and utter, / I speak not” (25-26), he says in “A Song of the Rolling Earth.” The poem sets out the transcendentalist doctrine of nature, but the poem also denounces itself for its inability to be what the transcendentalist theory would have it be. Whitman wants “A song of the rolling earth, and of words according” (1), but cannot achieve it with the tool of the poem. “Were you thinking that those were the words,” he asks, “those upright lines? those curves, angles, dots? / No, those are not the words” (2 – 3). Whitman uses the poem to commit himself or recommit himself to exactly the romantic, Transcendentalist, the vibrant, plenum of life he spoke of in “A Song of Myself,” but where once Whitman was going to yawp over the rooftops of the world, now he says utterances all have to be abandoned:

I swear I begin to see little or nothing in audible words,
All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth,
Toward him who sings the songs of the body and the truths of the earth,
Toward him who makes the dictionaries of words that print cannot touch.

I swear I see what is better than to tell the best,
It is always to leave the best untold.

When I undertake to tell the best I find I cannot,
My tongue is ineffectual on its pivot,
My breath will not be obedient to its organs,
I become a dumb man (98 – 107).

Herman Melville doesn’t announce the ambition of Moby-Dick directly. He kind of sneaks it in. It comes in late and sideways.

At the start the feeling is almost haphazard, and Ismael says, as if in afterthought, “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery parts of the world.” It’s imagined as a minor event in “the grand programme of Providence,” a little headline lost between “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States” and “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.” When the ambition is announced, it’s done almost obliquely. It’s done as if the narrator had lingered a little longer than necessary in the library, hoping somebody else would write the book so he wouldn’t have to: “As yet, however,” he says, “the sperm whale, scientific or poetic, lives not complete in any literature … As no better man advances to take this matter in hand, I hereupon offer my own poor endeavors.”

It’s more admission than announcement. It’s a cautious, carefully phrased version of what Walt Whitman wrote, when Whitman, the endless self-promoter, repeatedly claims in poetry and prose, essay and interview that his goal with Leaves of Grass was to put himself and his country, a whole living person and a wide, ever-undulating democracy, into a poem. Melville’s aim is no less ambitious, to put a whole living whale into a book.

Melville isn’t quite so brash to sing of himself, though, or to equate directly himself with the country as a whole. He worries, also, that his ambition will fail, that his picture of the whale will “remain unpainted at the last.” He is always aware he’s always on the verge of the whole thing breaking down, but the ambition is there. Beating underneath. It acts as the will to will it onward, the drive to make it work, a promise to try to do something great, the stakes that are high enough to make it worth while even if the whole thing fails.

Ambition, all by itself, makes the work a thing of value.

There’s so much out there, so much art that doesn’t promise anything. That makes no claim, and no attempt at anything. We’re awash in pop and flutter, blog and clutter. It’s not that little works can’t be great, whether they’re chapbooks or minimalist novellas or graffiti, and it’s not that least important texts of an era, its disposable and mass market texts, can’t actually be really interesting, but there’s no effort, no attempt so great I should yearn for it to succeed.

There are, of course, several very legitimate critiques of such ambition-driven books, of works that weigh this much and have this size. Feminists say phallus. Freudians say ego. Both comments can be kind of true, I think. Both are fair critiques. Megaworks can have the hubris of Manifest Destiny. But ambition, even by itself, even with nothing else sustaining it, can be, for me, a source of value. The scope and scale attempted, even if it fails, means, at least, there’s an attempt at something important, to be something significant.

Put it this way: If I read a single poem and it’s no good, all I can say, I think, is it’s no good. If I read Louis Zukofsky’s “A” and I hate it, at least I can say he was trying to do something important.

I’ve tried and failed to read Zukofsky‘s 803-page, 40-year poem several times. I don’t know that I’ve even gotten to the middle, though I flipped ahead far enough I know, towards the end, it devolves (?) into musical scores. The first time I picked it up and tried to read I was in a cafe and the waitress, an older lady, asked me if the sequel was B, which basically sums up the work for me.

I mean, I know there are passages in “A” I have found moving and meaningful and riveting –

“Love speaks: ‘in wracked cities there is less action,
Sweet alyssum sometimes is not of time, now
Weep, love’s heir, rhyme not how song’s exaction
Is your distraction — related is equated
How else is love’s distance approximated.”

and,

“‘You write a strange speech.’ ‘This.’”

and,

“– Clear music –
Not calling you names, says Kay,
Poetry is not made of such things,
Music, itch according to its wrongs,
Snapped old catguts of Johan Sebastian,
Society, traduction twice over.”

– and I find it interesting how World War II breaks out in the poem, and I can tell you something at least of why people who think it’s important think it’s important –

“Lower limit speech
Upper limit music

No?”

– but I don’t know that I can argue that it is. I read it, though, and try again because of the ambition, because, even if it fails, “A” seems like it’s trying to do something serious, something important, and because it seems like it’s making, as a work, a promise to be worth while to me. It is or has the air of a grand experiment, of something that can be believed in, invested in, even as it seems to falter and fail.

Even as I struggle with Zukofsky, I find I can believe in him based even on so slight of a thing as ambition. I find myself willing myself to want this experiment to endure, to want to believe, like Lincoln at Gettysburg, to make the comparison between the work and the nation, a comparison Walt Whitman would love, that something “so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

There’s something that’s consecrating about the struggle. There’s something worthwhile about the effort even if it fails.

Which is why, and I know I’ve come here the long way round, I’m disappointed with Sufjan Stevens. This album he’s released, Age of Adz, is not a bad album. It’s not. But it marks, for Stevens, an abandonment of a project that was Whitmanian in its ambition, that was, like Leaves of Grass and Moby-Dick, an ambitious attempt to put a whole country into a work of art. There are not a lot of efforts on this scale, but Stevens, this indie musician who was known, at one point, for wearing wings in concert and signing surprisingly religious songs, started something with his “Fifty States Project.”

With Michigan, in 2003, he started a work that promised to contain a country. A map of a place that is an idea and a feeling, a vision and an angst, our home, the place half known and half remembered and misremembered, mythologized and reinterpreted, the place where we are lost.

In Illinois, in 2005, he continued that. The map moved outward and Stevens started to show us the shape of the country he felt, beautiful and strange, scary, sad and mournful. I know, for me, part of my affinity for the work was the way what it described was the home I’ve known, the country I’ve lived in — this was no Whitman ebullience, but a county of serial killers to feel sorry for, of factories as empty as suicides, cities which were once great, and this was no Melvillian pursuit of transcendence, but a country of UFOs to wonder at and miss when they’re gone, of bible studies where we pray over people with cancer but nothing happens — but besides that, ignore that, the work was a promise of scale. This work was claiming to attempt to do everything that can be done with the art form, to be big enough to be important, to try, try to take the whole scope and scale of what we know, all fifty states of our experience, and put it in a series of albums.

Now he’s abandoned it. Two albums, a cycle of songs about an interstate, if you want to count that, and that’s it for the Fifty States.

It’s like the car broke down on the first day of a road trip.

Stevens is free, of course, to produce what he wants to produce, and if it was a gimmick, as he’s said, then it was a gimmick. But I was willing to trust, when it was clear he was trying to do something worth doing. I was willing to engage, when there was this promise of vistas. Without that effort, that attempt at greatness, that attempt to do what Whitman did or Melville did, to get a whole man, a whole whale, a whole life or country into a work, I don’t know that I’m convinced it’s worth my attention.

I thought Sufjan was trying to do something.

Drawing courtesy of Matt Kirsh, who is, ambitiously, drawing a picture for every page of Moby-Dick

Poets are limited if they read nothing but their own poetry and spend the rest of their time reading novels or thrillers. Most of my beginning students have never purchased a book of poems. They wish to write poetry, but they do not wish to read it. They read fantasy fiction mostly. So the first thing I do is give them books, a couple hundred or so, none of which are fantasy, and then I tell them to send me an e mail, quote an excerpt from the book, and riff off of it. I then riff back, and, very often, my prompt for them arises from the e-mail they’ve written or the excerpt they’ve quoted. This accomplishes five goals:

1. They are now in a relationship to a book, adding a sort of ongoing marginalia to it.
2. Their reading life and their writing life are being connected, in however arbitrary a way (in point of fact, the more arbitrary the better).
3. I am revitalizing the epistolary tradition and taking e-mail out of its fearful function as a less-easy-than-text form of sending sound bytes of information.
4. I am making myself respond to a student in a class of 20 as if it were an independent study, keeping myself sharp, and, very often, I write poems back or discover a new way into a text. So it is a great way to help me remain an artist as well as a teacher.
5. I am defeating snobbery. I am treating the student as a peer who is entering into a relationship with me in terms of the text.

I do not trust tabula rasa learning, but students have often known little else. Many tend to resist any process they are not familiar with. No one is more conservative than a student, and I have found graduate students to be the worst of all in this respect, because they are already turning into teachers, and, I’m sorry, but people attracted to teaching tend to like structure way too much. I also do not trust the current fad for group learning since I believe it does not promote relational give and take but further distances the students from his or her own mind by fitting his or her personality to a group dynamic that may not do anything except allow that student to be the same old introvert/extrovert, follower/director he or she has always been. It is further proof of Durkheim’s contention that the main purpose of education is to make students “conform to a norm.”

To me, all group learning is dangerously close to corporatism. I am not against group dynamics, but I find that they reward certain students unfairly, and punish others who may be talented, but who lack certain social skills. A group dynamic is a given. Four of the 20 students are going to be doing sixty percent of their class participation and there will be a group dynamic whether you want one or not. When you put them in groups, someone will assert his or her authority, and someone will feel like a pariah, and someone will be the chief minion of the assertive group member and form this weird, almost erotic worship thing I hate to see happen. They’ll act like a couple. I have no time for couples in my class. In short, typical ape behavior 101.

I want to create an oasis for students who have never been on the good side of any power structure, and I want to create a challenge for those who use groups to maintain their power or sense of comfort. Some group dynamics just work and others, no matter how good the prompts or how inspiring the teacher, fall flat. I prefer not to let my class ride on “group dynamics.” Here’s the truth: some students will hide. Others will want to draw attention to themselves. Still others will be contrary because they like being contrary. A lot of energy is wasted and for what? So we can find out what we already know? So and so is anti-social, and this one never shuts up, and that one needs everything to be structured to the nth-degree. Well I think we have gone too far in this direction, so I create an air of informality in my class. But I’ll be damned if I preside over three or four groups that are everything I despise about human primate behavior. You might say I am against the present love of groups. Fuck the Borg. Anyway, I digress….

Suffice it to say, I don’t use a common text book. I give each student a book of poems—at random. They write in to me two or three times a week, quoting a poem or excerpt, telling me what they liked, hated, or learned from the poem. Very often I have never read the book I gave them or have only read a few poems from it—so I am likely to be responding, not from knowledge of the book, but from past experience of poetry which allows me to make leaps between texts, to suggest other poets in the same style, to come at the material in a fresh, conversational way. I am not the expert teacher here, but the experienced learner, the one who has a love for poetry and gets excited by weird things like grammatical ambiguity, or how the poet used the weather to suggest a mood. A student might give me an excerpt in which a poet is brooding and the landscape is brooding with him. I call this pastoral narcissism. I send them Thomas Hardy’s “To A Darkling Thrush.” I gush about my love for this poem. I ask a question: Did you ever get annoyed at a beautiful day because you were in a horrible mood, sad and depressed, and the sun light, the happy faces of couples strolling through a park, the blue of the sky seemed to mock your mood? I ask, how hard is it to make a beautiful sunny day the back drop for a despairing consciousness? Can it be pulled off?

So they are each reading an actual book of poems—almost always by contemporary poets—and, meanwhile, I am bringing in poems. I might use Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last by the Dooryard Bloomed” as a way to talk about how to create image patterns in a longer poem. Whitman keeps bringing back the lilacs, the mockingbird, and the drooping star in the west, and he exploits every possibility of these three figures—symbolic, metaphorical, concrete—the way composers might use motifs in a sonata. I may bring in a sonata by Beethoven and show how recapitulation is used in longer works.

This is in a work shop! Yes, I hate, hate going around and around commenting on student’s poems. I have features instead, and I do not give the class the work ahead of time. I want them to be responsive in the here and now. I give half the class a written copy of the poem, and the other half listens. You can catch things about rhythm and overall mood from listening much better than having only the physical poem before you. You can also catch things by having the text you can’t get from merely listening. I want both.

Very often, if a student likes a poem, he or she will ask the writer for a copy. This is high praise indeed, and builds artistic affinity based on something other than forced group dynamics. I will sometimes have a copy of the poem before me, and sometimes, I, too, will be only listening. I will have the student read the poem once through. Then on a second read, I will stop him or her at certain points, make a comment, then let the reader continue. If the student is a poor reader of his or her work, I will read it aloud a third time. You’d be amazed what a student learns about his or her own poem by hearing it read by someone else, by actually hearing their poems come back at them. I will tell them to write down the spoken comments on their text. As for the written comments in class, these are handed in to the student at the end of class. I tell the class to listen to how I edit a poem, because it may relate to their work as well. Every student will have two or three features before the semester is over which amounts to the same thing as a normal work shop. In the meantime, they will have read a book of poems all the way through, lived with it intimately, learned something about their own aesthetics, and the amount of writing they will have done—both poetry and prose—will be four or five times the usual amount for a class.

These are the goals I have for a beginning poet.

1. To find out if they truly like poetry, or only write it to “express” themselves.
2. Find out what their aesthetics are, the limits of their aesthetics, and how these may be expanded.
3. Learn to be responsive to language both as written and performed text.
4. Gain exposure to major poems without having to take a lecture class.
5. Have a learning experience with their own minds and with the teacher far more concentrated than is usually possible in a class that consists of lecture, papers, exam.
6. Learn to write daily, rather than waiting for the last minute. This means they are not feeling they are doing a lot of work, but are, in fact, doing far more—minus bibliography, and all that formal stuff.

A writing work shop should also return literature to the study of the text as art since so many literary courses now use the text as pretext for theories on gender, identity, and so forth. Unlike Bloom, I have no problem with that, but once in a while, it is nice to look at the artistry. My job is to teach the students to read like writers: What can I take from this poem? How can I surpass what this writer is doing?

My most mundane goal: that they will know more about poetry than they did when they entered the class, and, just as importantly, that they will have learned something about themselves as conscious artists.

NOTE: Top photo used with permission of artist. For more, see this website.