Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”

What is the “relation between literature and life” in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”? Maybe just this, that they both might move us to tears. But moving readers to tears may not have been Flaubert’s intent. If readers want to be moved to tears, all they need do is hit the streets, where reality resides, or watch the news. They don’t need books. But is crying into a book a kind of pleasure?

“’A Simple Heart’…moved me to tears,” Russell Baker said, in “Hymns to Joy,” a New York Times article, the quote selected for the back of a New Directions “Bibelot” (NDP819, 64 pages). What was omitted in the ellipsis was Baker’s simple guess that most literary folks probably will have read Flaubert’s tale of the long life of a 19th Century French servant, Felicite, but he had not. Baker selected it as he was gathering reading material to take on a vacation. But the angle of his article wasn’t about Flaubert or reading that moves one to cry, but the suggestion that reading for pleasure has become a lost pastime. But wouldn’t a common reader going on vacation want something a bit more éclair than Flaubert? But what is pleasure?

Like Baker, I had never read Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” and I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard of Russell Baker. A cursory search found a witty, prolific journalist, and a host of Masterpiece Theatre – ah, of course. But I was sure of Harry Levin, also quoted on the back cover, having read his “Critical Introduction” to James Joyce. In Levin’s book “Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists” (1963), he says his subject is “the relation between literature and life.” Can literature not true to life move a reader to tears? Should literature resemble life? But what is life? In any case, while I wasn’t moved to tears by Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” I was moved to put something up on the blog – but what?

A recent post over at Bristlehound’s “navelgazer” blog takes on death as its topic. It’s a good post, witty and courageous. But as I get older, I think less of death than I do of getting older. Jenny Diski recently put something up at the Guardian on the topic of aging, concluding aging might be something easier to read about than to live through. I’ve written a bit about aging in past posts, and Flaubert’s passages on Felicite’s aging and passing reminded me of Atul Gawande’s moving articles on aging. How we respond to death may simply reflect how we respond to life. If life is a bummer, so too is death. If we take grudges to the grave, or we let others pass without our making amends, life is constriction. But none of this should bring tears to any reader’s eyes. Flaubert named his heroine Felicite for a reason, and he was a master of realism. Felicite is happiness, happy, another Gawande theme. But what is happiness?

Felicite is happy in spite of her predicament. This is why Flaubert named her Felicite – she is Flaubert’s definition of happiness. Her life begins with the existential decision to leave home after a potential partner jilts her for a chance with a woman with some dough. The only dough Felicite knows is the kind made into bread. But while Felicite is dependent on her mistress, she is independent in her capabilities, her skills, her ability to read others. It all seems so random, yet the plot elements also seem to fall into place naturally, inevitably, logically. Felicite examines her life, and it is worth living. Her every day is part of the exam, a test, in the end, she passes, even as the house decays and implodes upon her, while life in the street explodes with color and ritual and motion.

Fickle Moon

Plum blossoms fall in a cool moonglow,
and the calico cat cleans alone
in the delicate shower,
thinking, “How silly is this want of words,
where so much moonglow goes to waste.
She’s in the house, behind the curtains,
can’t see me awash in falling petals,
her face stuck in a moonless book.”

Another moon passes with more moonglow.
The ocean sky fills with gleeful moons.
The cat bats at the sweeping beams,
catching moon drops in her paws,
wiping moon balm across her lips and whiskers,
chasing yellow shadows in her tea garden,
thinking, “The television emits no moonglow,”
and cherry blossoms fall.

Another moon passes, and again she misses the moonglow.
Another moon passes, no moonglow for her.
The ocean sky rises and falls with full moons,
but no moonbeams come her way,
no moon drops fill her hands,
no moon balm wipes her lips.
The cat’s tail brushes daylily flowers,
and she bathes in a lavender mulch.

A loony moon glowers along,
heavy with a surplus of moonglow.
“Here, Kitty…Here, Kitty, Kitty…,”
but no moonbeams come her way,
no moon drops wet her palms,
no moon balm soaks her lips,
and no cat graces her garden,
ripe plums soon falling.

On Discussion

IMG_2347 "Let's dialogue"

“Let’s dialogue!” “Oh, please.”

What is there to discuss-ion? “Music as discourse (jazz) doesn’t work,” John Cage said.* “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it and use words.” As both a jazz and Cage fan, I’ve often reflected on the paradox, for discourse, “running to and fro,” seems an accurate description of jazz, with or without words.

According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, the word discussion in American English is on the decline, following a peak around 1960. Interested readers may follow the link to an Ngram Viewer chart that graphs the word discussion found in “lots of books” from 1800 through 2008 using the corpus “American English.” But what is the difference between being involved in a discussion and having a conversation? Again using Ngram Viewer, we find conversation and discussion crossing just after 1900, discussion on the rise, conversation falling off, but recently apparently headed for another crossing, discussion dying, conversation on the upswing, beginning around 1980. What does all this mean, if anything? But it looks interesting, even if it does not provoke a good discussion question.

Are discussions weightier than conversations? We may not associate the chitchat, the tete-a-tete, with discussion, but with conversation. Do we gossip during a discussion? We prattle on. Are you still with us? Maybe conversations are more intimate than discussions. Can we have a conversation question in the same sense we have discussion questions? If words have meanings, then perhaps a discussion on discussion might mean something. But is mere meaning ever enough, or must we have entertainment to boot? To mean is to mind, as we mine for meaning. And Cage added, immediately following his seemingly anti-jazz comment, in parentheses, “(Dialogue is another matter).” What did he mean by that?

What are discussion questions, and should we have them? Can we have a discussion without a question to prompt one? What is the discussion question that can only result in silence? And is that the discussion we desire?

                                                 Give any one thought
                a push       :     it falls down easily
          but the pusher  and the pushed    pro-duce      that enter-
tainment          called    a dis-cussion       .
                  Shall we have one later ?

Cage, "Lecture on Nothing," Silence, 1961 (1973), 109 (the text is 
arranged in four columns, here approximate).

Without further ado:

7 Short Discussion Questions with Equally Short Suggested Answers:

  1. Q: Are discussion questions deconstructive? A: Pour the lecture neat.
  2. Q: Where would you like to sit? A: In separate sections.
  3. Q: Has education become entertainment? A: You’re taking me out tonight?
  4. Q: How can we improve the world? A: How long is this supposed to last?
  5. Q: What can we learn from randomness? A: Noise counts – percussion discussion.
  6. Q: Why even when diligently minding our own business are we often snared by a discussion question? A: “Do you know the way to San Jose?”
  7. Q: Does wasted time pay for itself? A: Time will never tell.
* John Cage, "DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD 
(YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965," 
A Year From Monday, 1967, 12.

On Setting and Narration

Life on the Mississippi

Life on the Mississippi – Reading the Waves

In the middle of Adam Gopnik’s explanation of Lawrence Buell’s reading preferences informed by historical setting (New Yorker, “Go Giants: A new survey of the Great American Novel,” 21 Apr, 104), there’s an ambiguity, whether caused by Buell, Adam Gopnik, or both, I’m not sure, but Gopnik says Buell thinks Huck helping Jim escape is a less radical act in the eighteen-eighties, after slavery has already been abolished. The argument is made in the context of a comparison to Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852, an inferior work, according to Buell, but one, the argument continues, that Mark Twain must have read in order to write his better book. That’s probable, but while “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was published in the US in 1885, Twain set Huck and Jim’s story in “The Mississippi Valley. Time: Forty to fifty years ago,” before the Civil War and before Stowe’s book. Would a common reader in 1885 have understood the costs to a kid of deciding against the values of his immediate, local culture “forty to fifty years ago”? The answer to that question seems vital to Buell’s method of reading literature.

A common mishap reading any text occurs when readers confuse the author with the narrator. And often, indeed, writers struggle separating themselves from their narrator, trying to turn memoir into fiction, unwittingly revealing more about themselves than they intend. But crafty authors often deliberately create unreliable narrators. The lying or self-deluded narrator is most easily detected in the first person, but hidden behind the credible screen of the third person omniscient narrator, an author may still turn deceitful, sleight of hand tricks. And authors, too, often suffer from self-delusions. This isn’t so much about how literature works as how the making of literature works. But either way, readers may be easily confused. But how does that confusion matter to the reading of a text open to multiple possibilities?

Buell thinks it’s important that readers understand something of the times of the author; or does he mean the times of the character the author created? Either way, a reader who knows something of the setting of a novel will no doubt read it differently than a reader unfamiliar with the novel’s setting. But there’s another problem: how does a reader come to know settings of the past? Through narratives, some of which may be unreliable, even if cast in the non-fiction mode. And even if reliable, history is constantly undergoing revision. How does historical revisionism impact the reading of literature?

But the question of whether or not readers in 1885 understood Huck’s predicament given the novel’s setting is an important one. It’s a question we might ask of any number of literary works. Kerouac’s “On the Road” (1957), for example, gets a new reading with each new generation of readers, but the further we get from the so called Beat Generation, the more we might need other works surveying the period of the work’s setting – a good companion piece to “On the Road” is “Go” (1952) by John Clellon Holmes. How readers respond to a narrative is dependent on many variables. Non-Catholics, for example, are likely to read Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” differently than Catholics, and Catholics who actually attended Catholic schools will read it differently again.

Where is the reader who brings no experience or expectation whatsoever to a text? They just might be the author’s best target audience. And likewise, why wouldn’t readers search for that very book, the experience about which they know nothing?

On Description

A Cat Egg

Where did that egg come from? What egg? Why are you sitting on an egg? What egg? Cats are not supposed to sit on eggs. You see eggs? I see nine eggs in the carton. I see nine missing eggs in the carton. Where are the missing eggs? “The future is in eggs,” Eugene Ionesco said, his name a perfect description of an egg. That does not even begin to describe this situation. Do you want to say situation, or predicament? A cat egg is like a mare’s nest. Let’s blow this joint before someone asks what makes a cat purr.

Embedded in most descriptions is a prescription, instructions for viewing, boundaries stipulated and promoted. What might look at first glance objective enough turns around and around on an axis of theory.

Qualifications: from a distance; in the waning light of a neon-like moon; on a particularly hot, steamy day, out of season. Adjectives and adverbs cloud the way. References.

How do we describe description, the process we use to describe, carry across? And why bother? Why describe something others are free to experience for themselves?In any review, isn’t there an implicit recommendation based on a prescription of what is being described, how it ought to have been done, or at least how otherwise it might have been carried out?

A description of a painting, a Rothko: What is blue, size, warp; from what distance, in what light? Does our description of the Rothko change if others come into the room? The paintings are on the move, constantly changing, even as the museum makes every effort to still them. Description is a distillation of a sensory happening. McLuhan advised touch is the most involving of the five senses. When we paint, we use all five senses at once: paint odors; the brush splash sounds as we touch bristles to canvas. We take a break for lunch and taste oil in our bread. But are all descriptions sensory? What happens when we describe a process, an idea. Must description use words? What does a cat’s purr describe? Can we describe a cat’s purr in a painting?

Easter Eggs 2014

Egg Culture

We come, then, naturally enough, to the egg. We are reminded of Duchamp, his hidden object, if it is an object, which gets us nowhere. We need to get inside the egg for a full description, but once we crack the egg open, it’s not the same egg. We decorate our description.

It’s easy enough to say that descriptive writing is language that appeals to one or more of the five senses. But words can’t capture experience. Where is the description that activates our taste buds, such that we taste the bread and wine even as our fast continues? Is all description vicarious? We write down, distil, drop away. Description is at the distal end of experience.

Juice and Joy

“What is all this juice and all this joy?” Gerard Manley Hopkins asks of Spring. And no sooner does he sing the push and fuss, the ballyhoo, of a sea sky blue slurred song of fresh thrushes than he announces the sound of a melancholy note, a bell of vespers, the turning of the promise of spring, spring’s quick morning suddenly fallen, the promise of its baby blue sky now overcast, what was in the seed of his poem from the beginning, “a strain.”

Is spring for the earth painful? It might be, born in a bed of industrial pollution, which even in Hopkins’s time was already something to brood over, and in spring he’s already grieving.

Not for Hopkins will spring last, and every spring grieves for its unwinding even as it unwinds in juice and joy. It’s the climate change of the “Sea of Faith” again that seems to sully his spring. To his coy mistress he does not even bother calling. He doesn’t want to make the sun run; he wants to see it stand still.

And Hopkins twists Herrick’s argument’s ear, and Herrick’s sin of staying becomes for Hopkins a sin of leaving. Where in Herrick, Corinna is told,

And sin no more, as we have done, by staying;
But my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying,

in Hopkins, the children are told:

Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Hopkins does not seem to sing to the virgins. Somehow, he’s unable to seize his day. Hopkins disliked cages: “This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.” In Hopkins, spring is not sustainable, but this abstract thought becomes itself a cage. And age is a cage.

So it was of Hopkins and his springs and falls I thought as I walked past this Flowering Japanese Crabapple tree the other day. And I remembered a line from Hopkins’s poem, “God’s Grandeur”: “And for all this, nature is never spent.”

041220141136 Flowering Japanese Crabapple 1

At least, I think it’s a Flowering Japanese Crabapple. Hopkins would probably know. He despaired, among the many things he seems to have despaired over, of the toil and wear and tear already evident upon nature of the effects of urbanization and industrialization. Yet here I saw these lovely blooms persisting, in the middle of the city, surrounded by construction. For the tree, as you can now see in the pic below, is a caged skylark. But it’s been there awhile, wedged into a corner of a parking lot up against an old brick apartment house, but it continues to sing to me, and will sing to you, too, and to anyone who cares to take a walk in spring. Alas, as Hopkins and the carpe diem poets remind us, spring won’t last, so get it while you can, while the juice still runs freely and the joy escapes confinement.

But, no, wait, why go under such a stricture and structure? That seed grows into a tree of melancholy. Why not simply go? Not put out, but go out. Ah, now there’s some juice and joy to go by.

041320141137 Crabapple road construction

 

Argument in the Time of Apples

Torqued antipathy apparels dimple Args
dented funny car, idling gear limbed,
oiled, greased, and garbed
wardrobe red, beaming barbs,
wavy hair flames bursting
from the fat winged fenders
of his 1950 hot rod roadster,
and the countdown lights
go green, and the ground springs,
and the asphalt melts to sap;

meanwhile, in lane next whole daddy,

apples in juicy life dangle,
from form below pending,
suspended, the quick nap of a bee,
moistly sloping sap up elegant boughs,
up, wake up, give us blush
pale pink blossoms,
not the false fruit of an inapt poem.
Leaf springs, cracks the bark
of the dormant pome tree
pruned for Verve & Vigor.

Explication:

What is called a season is the mapping of sap
around a wound,
and a poem is a funny car.
After the burled cuts, twisted,
elbow pruned shifting of gears
and squealing of red wheelbarrows,
the melting tongue wanders away,
talking to the bees from a standing start,
showing the pink slip core of reason
dash and flash in a sap sluice.

Seven Variations on a Sentence

1. Build box fill with content space controls design states theme bounces against thesis walled margin defined area filled with persons places things painted drawn and quartered in actions still within lines.

2. Build tables cells macro plots instruct how to within what build city filled roads on roads place persons places things actions ruled within scheme bordered function.

3. Shape controlled text how said informed what said syllabus sawhorse lay round flat stones for flat feet map outlined argument billed old metaphor electronically melting build light to power body sun swayed body.

4. Old metaphors corrupt case cold call book disappeared in closed pit wings line empty library shelves body of fabrication strip-milled pall-mall plumbing hidden in alley walls.

5. Build statement paper small hamlet few houses number pages lines words characters  define beginning finite end create punctuation to manage tasks a men an age.

6. Align build assign venture run meet-and-greet purpose audience use rows columns fixed to stage con persons places things rotate rows to columns columns to rows persons to things places to persons things to places sketch arranges profile persuades.

7. User friendly unalloyed no-frills click here look ma no hands silhouette of idea.

Word Put Upon Word

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“Stone put upon stone
and chamber beside chamber”
D’Arcy Thompson
“Mud put
upon mud,
lifted
to make room,”
Robert Creeley
word    hod
   put
upon  house
word
 shell
 soma stone
put
 upon
stone
 
put log upon log cube upon cube
 pier upon pier unit upon unit
post up & unus put upon unus
 road upon road  
page   upon page  
wood in face upon face
 paint put upon paint wall put upon wall
 one part upon part upon
 slab on slab load put upon load
hod word onus upon onus
line put upon line word upon stone
bowl put mud in
 hand put upon hand a pan upon a
 tone drum stone upon
note upon note a lifted scuttle
note upon row in a
 sign sing stone mud call
name put upon cut word in
 rune put upon stone bone lifted
end upon end a tune  in

CODA: wind upon wind wave upon wave cloud upon cloud grass upon grass leaf upon leaf sail upon sail hill upon hill cove around cove cliff upon cliff square upon square camp upon camp town upon town city upon city state upon state…wind upon wind wave upon wave cloud upon cloud cove around cove

IMG_2067 Word Put Upon Word

Notes on n+1’s “MFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction”

"I'm going to New York City to become a famous writer!" "New York can be really tough on a cat."

“I’m going to New York City to become a famous writer!”
“New York can be really tough on a cat.”

The blogger is the busker of the writing world, sidewalk setup with pre-production to distribution in a snap, with or without an MFA or ever having set foot in Brooklyn, where it’s easy to mistake an NYC for a hipster, the new hepcat, but the character with a sign on a street corner, selling short stories, has got to be an MFA. Of course I bought one. It’s titled, “Sixteen short stories, and what do you get? Another day older and money in debt.” That’s it, the whole story, a study in minimalism.

n+1’sMFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction” sounds more highfalutin that it is. The eclectic collection of analytic and reflective pieces is very engaging: personal, down-to-earth, and sincere; witty, informative, and cantankerous. The stories of the aspiring writers though are often wrapped in disappointment, and don’t amount to good news for the latest whiz kids on their way to the big time.

The big time here is the coveted publishing contract and the freedom to write it suggests. But if the big time is part of the great American novel, the form is protean: movie stardom, big league baseball star, corporate head-honcho, founder of the next mega-church, on the cover of Rolling Stone. How does a relentless pursuit of excellence turn rancorous and begin to have a negative effect on the game, or the business, or the art? Subcultures are constantly being subsumed by the dominant, overarching culture, the umbrella over the barrel. The writers and scholars that appear in “MFA VS NYC” have big time stories to tell, and readers interested in the making of literature will find intriguing stuff on the ways the writing of fiction is taught or learned and the resulting fiction influenced and modified by the many players in the process: teachers, programs, agents, publishers, editors, publicists, booksellers, critics, readers.

People write for all kinds of reasons and purposes, usually to someone, and if the writing is sent off – the memo, the email, the love letter, the white paper, the blog post, the letter to the editor, the book proposal, the sign in a window, the graffiti on a train car, the busker’s song sang on the sidewalk – the writing is published. Just as often, no doubt, and just as well, probably, the writing is trashed or deleted, but whether the writing is read or heard or not, by whom or how, or how long it lives, is all another matter. Some writers write to themselves, diarists. Their work is published when it’s found. Writers often hold up a mirror to the culture, and if the mirror is cracked, the culture turns away. Writers, like the rest of us, all seem to have a particular picture of themselves, hardly ever the same picture others have of them. It’s the picture of ourselves we don’t recognize that might make for the best writing and reading. The pictures of writers and writing, of literature, that unfold in “MFA VS NYC” merge the ones the writers have with the ones their readers might have, bringing the whole affair into better focus.

A Shuck of Stone

When the lemon yellow of a doubtful flower tells lies
And the hush pink plum blossoms first fail to surmise
A touch and a kiss turn to stone.

When the steep turn toward the dark cherry dyes
And find winkle’s wake still seeping under the sash
A drink and a dress turn to stone.

To turn to stone is not to die and worm away
A stone never slept nor arose
A stone is a stone is a stone is a stone.

When knickknacks walk and talk and wingding
The livelong night no wonder
A flower turns to stone.

Hearths are made of stone, and wheels, and paths,
And walls, and dwellings, and churches, and busts.
A stone thrown skiffles across water and plops.

When a shuck of stone falls from the sky
Not a soft place on the land to nest
A tempest has turned to stone.

When in spring one feels petrified
Curl and pit and weigh and hurl
Slink and creep and push and pull.

When the angels of spring go stone
Old stones erupt in new waves
And lyrical flowers woe no bloom.

An Imperfect Imposition

An Imperfect Imposition   Gloss
       
He goat a haircute,   “Beware enterprises
molted a shive,   that require
and emptoed the moot.   new clothes.”
       
He out cast the let   Ruined good tune,
down at sup-a-dup   raised to put
and unvaled a crune,   bread on table.
       
frumpted and follying,   Commuters fly
and clutched the rolled,   in wingtips aspire
acrested the abridged am-this   cross closed bridges.
       
Daddy-Oh! Pater-pitter-patter Ah, familiar
potairy, roong froom the Gin-is-is in joy of brewcrew
hisses Ink Pour Age.   song of a pint.
       
He rit the hoad alt coomed,   [Readers
sweeat urned his id,   may reply
and snoozled wths sapoozed.   below.]
       
Hairfigged fitted, compred wronged, All quiet
he wroted, a temptwitted,   on the worsted
but ownlie slylents twas loosening, font.
       
ands the suns downsed and moons Only a real fool
arowsis a crewised shell fellowing ignores the full
pips sillied byburds.   loon.
       
Sorry to impose like this is the poet Where should it go:
speaking, but have you a place for thes Recycling, Compost,
amythidst your these is?   or Garbage?
       
Supposing posing, oh, posing:   Climbing
“I am positioned,” the imposing the corpus
poet posited, “I am composed.” ladder.
       
Nonesuchofwhich off course   Maybe end
was teachno techno blareney,   with the “byburds”?
steel eye as I am I am postplus. Too late now?
       
Owl duedew uandeye goal   Reading kicker
quickwick of it?   position player
Illklicked ear, wellclick thr.   diversion.

Badges

Hanging from their necks,
belts, or ties, with photo,
they come from somewhere,
and have some place to go.

She sees them bouncing up and down
the streets, swagging vigor to and fro.
Sometimes they meet and talk,
badge to badge, boar to sow.

She doesn’t get what they say.
Normally, they just proceed,
prancing days, romping nights,
round and round they gambol

through tunnels of sun
sounding golden horns,
steeds indeed, lit up
in glorious gowns a glut.

She had one once, but let go,
repeating the hollow phrase,
preferring not to be badgered,
“And that has made all the difference.”

Badge

On Boredom

Today we gaze into the Abyss of Ennui. What is boredom?

“Excess of sorrow laughs, excess of joy weeps”: In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Blake understood the Abyss, and sought to correct our assumptions and expectations. “The busy bee has no time for sorrow,” Blake said. But commuting home through an hour of plodding, plowing traffic, loaded down with work we’ve taken home for the weekend, we feel not the lightness nor the fickle flightiness of the bee. “The cut worm forgives the plough,” Blake said. Maybe, come Saturday night and he just got paid.

Some tasks seem intrinsically boring. But we often confuse boredom with irritation, frustration, or addiction. Is boredom addictive? We say we are bored with what we don’t want. Tasks too bureaucratically procedural or repetitive lend themselves to boredom, not to mention carpal tunnel syndrome. What we don’t want to do, we put off, some of us; others, we jump in and get it done, so we can get on to something we find more interesting, those things we are passionate about. The former are the procrastinators, we are told, the latter the achievers. Both, though, we suspect, are susceptible to boredom.

We often gravitate voluntarily to intrinsically boring tasks. What could be more repetitive than typing out another post? Physically repetitive: mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, the blogger flies with the bees of the cosmos! Really? I should try blogging.

When we open the laptop or cell phone, we are not met with the organic breath of the compostable paper page of the book or newspaper. Someone should invent an app for smells, so that when we open the laptop, we are met with roses or the must of an old book. Maude had a similar idea in the film “Harold and Maude.” Harold is a bored rich boy, until he meets and falls in love with Maude. The protagonist is age; Harold is young, and Maude is old. Still, love alleviates Harold’s boredom, and after Maude, and after Harold sends his old life in a makeshift hearse over a cliff, the banjo.

We hear of solutions that would alleviate boredom, suggesting boredom is a heavy and dark load that might be lifted from the bearer. Boredom begins to resemble depression. And boredom blends easily with guilt, for in a world saturated with pain and suffering at one end and glitz and shazam at the other end, who dare the chutzpah to turn the cheek of boredom outward? Quit your bitching and get back to your widgets.

Does Superman ever get bored? Batman, bored? Spiderman? The specialist, it would seem, would be the first to suffer from boredom.

In “Only Disconnect: Two cheers for boredom” (New Yorker, 28 Oct 2013, 33-37), about the relationship between boredom and distraction, Evgeny Morozov maintains that “to recognize oneself as bored, one must know how to differentiate between moments – if only to see that they are essentially the same” (34). When we’re bored, we want to be distracted, to take our minds off the monotony. We look down the assembly line of our lives and see nothing but more of the same, the same terrain, and unless we’ve been able to sustain an endless summer of surfing, we start to crave a fifth season, and we understand the winter and every other season of our discontent. The ability to click off one app and on to another is ongoing, but the solution creates another problem – call it the William Blake challenge: Excess of distraction bores, and we crave more and more distraction.

On Boredom

“What are you doing?”
“Nothing.”
“I’m bored! Let’s do something!”
“I am doing something.”
“You just said you are not doing anything.”
“I did not say I am not doing anything. I said I am doing nothing.”
“Oh, wow! You’re not going on another John Cage binge, are you?”

What is boredom? John Cage provided what we might call a working definition: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else” (Silence, 1961, “Lecture on Nothing”).

If the specialist is the least equipped to stave off boredom, the artist is the best equipped. Because artists are generalists, they are able to turn their attention in different directions, outward or inward (whether at will or forced change does not matter) without the quality of disinterest or distraction. A true artist cannot know boredom in the act of art. Artists don’t require passion; passion is for amateurs. This is true for the painter or poet, gardener or dancer, musician or chef, surfer or clown, sailor or walker, potter or plumber.

Got boredom? Get art. At the bottom of the Abyss sits art, doing nothing.

On Jury Duty, Poetry Gaze, and Yu Xiang’s “I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust”

In the Jury Assembly RoomAre you wearing metallic hairspray, metal flake rouge, wire under bra?

A beep enlivens the line. Boots is told to back up and come through again, but again the beep, and she’s told to take the boots off, the line alert to its slowness, more prospective jurors wanting into the foyer and out of the fog, the enormous oak door squeaking and letting in whisks of cold announcing a newcomer.

Are you wearing a hidden watch, steel mesh underpants?

No, no, but again the beep.

Boots takes off a vest and sends it through the scanner and walks silently though the screener.

Impolite beeps like embarrassing burps, almost everyone is caught surprised.

In orientation we learn a body of ennui weeps from the citizen soul, exudes from the body politic’s pores, but so far, the only claim supporting boredom comes from the introductory video. Still, one of the jury assembly room supervisors wittingly promises us boredom. But isn’t that what poetry is for, I wonder, a theory I soon begin to test.

The jury assembly room is now nearly full, around 150 prospective jurors; what are we doing? No one is chatting. Sleep impossible under the surgical lights. The long, narrow room is like the sundeck of an ocean liner sitting in port.

On the south wall of the room, facing the audience, is a large mural, bookended by flat-screen televisions, small and effete by comparison, the mural a colorful painting of a two-horse drawn chariot, one horse brown, the other blue, whip driven by a jester wearing a mask, and riding in the carriage, a kid playing violin, women looking up at trapeze artists swinging in the sky, a trumpet player, on the tailgate another jester – a tuba player in striped motley. An American flag blows from the rear bumper. Above and left of the chariot, a merry-go-round spins, to the right, a lighthouse stands at the end of a long, winding jetty, candy-cane red and white striped. On the horizon, white clouds whip along a deep blue, chatoyant, turning turquoise where the sea comes close to shore, the chariot hurling along a beach road, a border of green grass at bottom.

At break I take a closer look at the mural, signed “Arvie”: a panel painting, a pentaptych, three large middle sections and two smaller end sections. An information label reads, Arvie Smith, Youth in Detention, “There Are No Impossible Dreams,” 2010.

On the two television sets, almost no one seems to be watching, plays a morning cooking show, muted but with captions. What are we prospective jurors doing? Laptop computing, earphones plugged into cell phones, listening devices, reading, writing, trying to sleep, drinking coffee, eating snacks. No one is knitting (needles are disallowed).

I get up and take a little walk. We are five rows deep times 30 or so seats to a section, about five sections, a few couches and tables at the far west end, then the bathrooms, a row of laptop stations at the east end, a small kitchen area with a microwave, filtered water, a pop machine, a candy machine, a bulletin board. Outside the kitchen are four, wall-size bookshelves courtesy the County Library.

I reach in my bag and pull out Yu Xiang’s book of poems titled “I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust” (Zephyr Press, 2013, 151 pages). There are ten sections, 44 poems, most confined to one page, with several longer poems, five notes, with an introduction by the translator, Fiona Sze-Lorrain, “Paris, France – July 2011.”

I look at the first poem, titled “My House,” and enjoy the Chinese original on the facing page. Unable to read the Chinese, I look for characters that repeat, a stranger in a strange land. The English version is also 25 lines, a single, narrow, column-like stanza. The lines don’t rhyme. Words bounce down the page like an oblong stone kicked down a sidewalk. The images are clear. There’s a reference to “Pedro Paramo,” and the last line, in French, repeats the title of the poem. So that’s how it is, a you and an I. Who is you, and who is I, and who is Pedro Paramo? And whose house is this, yours or mine? Yet this poem does not ask questions; it gives answers, as a home speaks, even to a stranger.

The next poem is titled “Street.” So we move from the house to the street. There are three stanzas: 5 lines, 6 lines, 3 lines, one that sings:

“we drink beer, peel edamame”

“Street” ends on a note of love.

Most cases settle before juries are called. Court is expensive.

It’s a wonderful mural, full of color moving across the wall like a screen in a movie theatre, the jury assembly audience as still as popcorn in a cardboard box. Suddenly, though not entirely unexpectedly, we are dismissed for the day.

Jury Duty, Day Two. The mental note I made yesterday to bring a pair of sunglasses today failed. The library-bright lighting hums from the courthouse-high ceiling. I read an essay in the Philip Lopate book, discussing the rhetorical basis of the personal essay. Every text is an argument, Trilling argued. I’m ready for a break already; arguments about argument have lost their allure. I look around at my jury peers. One of my neighbors, Ursula, is eating a banana. Another, Penelope, appears asleep behind sunglasses. I don’t really know their names, nor have I spoken to them. I give them names suggested by the books they are reading. I think of getting up and walking about, but I don’t. I’m sleepy. At break, I go into the hall and buy a cup of coffee from the busy kiosk.

I’m sitting in the back row again, mural right. None of these chairs is anchored to the deck. Hopefully the seas will stay calm. The television plays a piece on the Portland Bridal Show, a silent movie. I put the Lopate back in my bag and take out the Yu Xiang, which I’m now reading for the third time in a week. A young woman a few seats away is reading sheet music, a musician, it seems fair to conclude, as I warm up for a case. I return to my Yu Xiang book of poems. But somehow seeing the girl with the sheet music has made Yu Xiang seem so distant, and China and poetry so complicated. I text Susan, no answer. The jury room supervisors call a break. Good, I’m exhausted from the Lopate. I get up and move about. No one is talking in the jury waiting room, no conversations, more quiet than a library, an odd silence, given the size of the waiting crowd. I remember another jury duty I served, some years ago, when the room bustled with games and conversations. Citizens today are electronically put to sleep.

My name is called and suddenly I’m on a case. I finish the orange I brought from home. The adrenalin kicks in, from the orange or from being called, I’m not sure, but I feel awake, alert, refreshed, and healthy.

I make it through the selection process with 14 of my peers (12 + three alternates). The case begins. Judge Franklin Mahon Coughca provides an overview and instructions. The prosecutor explains the dispute: a poet is accused of writing wrong poems.

The defense doesn’t take long, in essence, “so what?” I’m inclined to agree, but I remember my duty and try to be impartial and unbiased and all that. I want to hear what the jury of my peers thinks.

The jury deliberates:

The twelve jurors: a Waitress; a Plumber; a Bassoonist; a Car Wash Attendant; Penelope; a Receptionist; a Care Giver; a Hairdresser and Masseuse; an Architect’s Assistant; a Bank Teller; a Computer Programmer; a Street Sweeper – plus three alternate jurors, a gas station attendant, a financial analyst, and a blogger.

As it turned out, I’m only an alternate juror, but on the strength of my being a blogger, I’m asked to volunteer to take notes.

from my Notes:

Yu: Are there any dogs in his poems, apartments and balconies, flies? These things are all elements of an engaging poem.

Ursula: Some of these words appear to be spelled backwards. What’s that called?

Care Giver: Is there a woman converging the real with the imagined?

Penelope: Is there a water closet?

Computer Programer: Is there a business side?

Bassoonist: Is there music?

Receptionist: I hate poetry, always have. What’s the point? If you have something to say, say it, in as few words as possible, and clear, so everyone can understand exactly what you mean, and then shut the hell up.

Hairdresser and Masseuse: Well, but poetry is like art, I mean, isn’t it? Isn’t there always like some secret message, some code, like a moral to the story?

Car Wash Attendant: This one looks like a sign of some kind, like telling people which way to go, you know?

Computer Programmer: If you think about it, there’s only letters and spaces. That’s it, that’s all there is to it. Case closed.

Waitress: But they’re not all the same size.

Architect: I think all of these poems are wrong. I say he’s guilty and let’s go home.

Plumber: Maybe we should read some of these poems out loud.

Computer Programmer: I always thought poems were supposed to rhyme until I met my wife.

Architect: Poems can rhyme or not rhyme. That’s what I don’t get. How do you know if it’s even a poem? Could be some sort of laundry list or grocery list or something. You know what the problem with poets is? They don’t make anything.

Yu: We must look for keys and keyholes, and personal pronouns strewn in shredded syntax.

Street Sweeper: Did the poetry police not violate his rights?

Yu: This is my body.

Penelope: These appear to be poems of procedural polity.

Ursula: There’s a bit of rhyme, punctuality, is that what it’s called? The words have sound.

Bassoonist: They look ritually safe to me.

Penelope: A poet should be culturally accountable.

Waitress: I knew a poet once. He was one of these guys always taking pictures of his food with his cell phone. I guess he published the pictures online or something like that. And the poems were like captions or something, you know? Like subtitles. To the photos. I don’t know. He seemed like a nice guy.

Yu: Do you take this wolf to be your wife?

Plumber: I do. I mean, I would, if I could.

Ursula: One might as well ask about law and order on a different planet. I don’t understand how they could not have resolved this dispute out of court.

Bassoonist: But that’s neither a question nor an answer, not much of an argument.

Yu: That’s an interesting sentence.

The Verdict: The jury finds the poet innocent, but nevertheless he’s sentenced by Judge Coughca to 1,000 years of community service, to be served as an adjunct instructor of the research paper, with no hope for tenure.

The judge thanks the jury for its service, and we walk back down to the silence and security of the jury assembly room.

I take the Yu Xiang from my bag. I’m thinking of poetry gaze. In a land where poetry has been devalued beyond zero, isn’t every poem a sigh of dissentire? What is poetry gaze? I feel like Yu Xiang is watching me reading her poems. But she does not care what I think, nor even what I might be feeling. Then again, her poems are like

…a door that says:
Be careful! You might lose your way”

(Yu Xiang, from “I Have, 2002,” p. 67)

+++

Eleanor Goodman interviews Yu Xiang.

Yu Xiang talks about her writing in a dialog (In Search of a Transient Eternity: Chinese Poet Yu Xiang BY Fiona Sze-Lorrain & Yu Xiang) at Cerise Press.

The Feng Shui of Car Chit Chat

I say I’m thinking of a book She tells me where to turn.
on lost practices to places. There’s a space, she says,
She offers or a poem about expecting me to pull into it
true and correct directions, and park, and when I don’t,
and tells me to hang a right she hums a bit vexatiously
at the light that turns green. at our dual needs to control.
The real question is how to We’re in the car a long time
enter a poem without hurt, to and from, back and forth.
and once in, to sweep clean She prefers driving modus,
the wrecked words of glass handling the stick so softly,
littering from here to there not to foreshadow distance
the streets of conversation. the clutch to engage slowly.
We unload the grocery bags. The winds tipped over a pot.
She holds the milk and wine. A couple of chairs blew over.
There are flowers for a vase. The clocks tell the electrical.
The car off cackles and cools. I map a plan from the guitar
The house is an ancient map to the kitchen, avoiding trills,
in a bottle tossed must ocean. my socks stilled in tambour.

A Cat’s New Year’s Resolutions

A Cat's New Year“Happy New Year!”

“Thanks, but what’s that ringing?”

“You’re supposed to ring in the New Year and cheer!”

“I don’t know where you get your ideas.”

“From blogs!”

“I might have guessed.”

“Do you have any New Year resolutions?”

“Yes, as a point of fact, I do, to wit, but one.”

“And?”

“To increase both the frequency and severity of naps.”

“Ah, that’s the same as you had last year. Want to hear mine for 2014?”

“No.”

“This year, I’m going to avoid the near occasion of sin, cut out candy, shorten my tweets to be more clear and concise, listen more attentively, love. I want to love more. I want to bring back the Summer of Love, 1967! I want to live in harmony with the birds and squirrels, raccoons and possums, slugs and toads, bees and wasps, all that is electric and all that is acoustic. I’m going to give more and take less. I’m going to give kisses away, free, on every street corner I round. I’m going to sing more. Joe said it’s never too late to start singing. I’m going to learn to play a musical instrument, something with strings. I want to play soft and mellow and moist. I want to draw a bow across a string that creates a whine like a train. I’m going to watch more movies, Doris Day and Danny Kaye. I’m going to walk more, go for mysterious walks, step out, step it up, wander at will through this urban landscape we call home.”

“The odds weigh heavily against any of it.”

“If life is a gamble, I’m all in.”

“And I fold.”

Related Post: A Cat’s New Year’s Celebration

More On Trees

Are trees intelligent? We are how we define. In this week’s New Yorker (23 Dec), Michael Pollan takes a fresh look at the compare and contrast conversation over animal versus plant kingdoms: “The Intelligent Plant: Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora.”

At what cost do we hold the brain primary in a hierarchical view of consciousness, problem solving – in short, life? Picture two planets. On one, life forms with a torso and five appendages have evolved to invent marvelous technological tools, but the essential nature of the life form does not appear to have improved. Persuasion remains the name of the game. On the other planet, a similar life form appears to live in symmetry with the planet’s plants and animals (and, by extension, with one another), in a positive symbiotic relationship made possible by the nurturing of life sustaining partnerships and the recognition that all life contains the same kernel of consciousness, a kernel that may or may not be located in a central control system called a brain. But the artificial technology remains rudimentary. Is one planet smarter than the other?

In perhaps the most persuasive part of Pollan’s discussion, he asks, in response to the criticism that plants can’t think because they don’t have brains, no command center, where in the brain is the brain, where in the brain is this command center? It appears that the brain may function in much the same way as a plant’s root system.

In other news, the Toads Dec. 6 piece, titled “Trees of Christmases Past,” has been posted at the Berfrois site. Have a happy holiday diversion at Berfrois!

Meantime, we celebrate Christmas with this more on trees photo gallery. Click on any pic to view the gallery.

Hamlet’s Status (A Play in Six Posts)

Hamlet, at his computer. Enter Polonius:Hamlet's Status

Polonius: What friends thou hast, add them fast, Lord Hamlet.

Hamlet: Polonius advises us to link our souls with hoopla,
When twice this same moon updates us,
But still to me she hath not chatted.

Polonius: Light lord, thy status in disconnect must be,
Causing you this dark and dour distress.

Hamlet: Fish not, sir; I fear she hath deleted me.
What post supports this knotted matter?
False light quickly fades, casting us in dark shadows.
Let the clouds betide, let the rains come
So thick and dark not the bark of the ark stays dry.

Polonius: Despair not, care not, Lord, care less than not.
Some new compeer will soon light your night
With comely links and notes bright.
Light be your aim, Lord, light your audience,
And this will give light to thee.

Hamlet: Nay, sir. In this book of faces there is but one for me,
And I am trapped in this light box like a wench in a nunnery.

End

Of the Quest of Sir Petersilie of Pestlebrawl of the Order of the Snail; or, The Slug that Slew the Knight Errant

“There has been much scholarly debate about the significance of these depictions of snail combat,” (“Knight v Snail,” Medieval manuscripts blog, British Library).

Sir Petersilie of Foolsbrawl in a Field of SnailsOn the sticky tricky trail of the obliviously slow sung snail
In abstruse night hauled from mused sleep our noble knight
Loyally hassled by Bona Fide his gallant gabbling vassal squire
Sheathed and studded leaves amid the rustle of first light
Abysmal metaphorical lack-a-back his lazy credo
Squaring his mail nailing his welds into steel mental spikes
For Bona Fide dressing Petersilie was indeed a close battle.

Busy poets to the court replace rusting escutcheons
This historical tourney near the end of futile modernity
Before joust was just jest and chivalry a corporation
Stood tall Sir Petersilie of Pestlebrawl upon staid steed
Auguring from the Order of the Snail mortal welcome
This his last Quest for the Wholly Exulted Wooly Grail
To hold the sacred secret of the sweat and dour secretion.

In satirical slime he spent his time a woed scholar of the decoy
Stout by hearty ales microbrewed behind the berfrois
Ate merry and many a fatty but delicate foie gras
And escargot whilst knights jousting with snails roiled
Scrolls of marginalia snails dressed in natural snail mail
Pacing against mace married his demise bored sweet and torus
The fused self-complacent snail did fain cant and tilt.

4120159349_b798c17b54Thus domesticated rusticating finished his failure ne’er-do-well fall
In the finals tourney he slipped tumbled and sprawled
In a nest of snails and Bona Fide let go and abandoned all
For a seaside rest fishing pole and white winter flounder
And all around whelks of waves swelled and bulged
The salt tide rising on Petersilie couched in a conch
Dreaming of collations and juxtapositions.

Notes on the Difficulty of Reading a New Poem

Poem WalkingWhat happens when we encounter a new poem? New poems can seem impenetrable. But maybe the idea is not to penetrate. If the poem is new, the reading experience is also new, unfamiliar, foreign to our eyes and ears, to our sensibilities. What happens when we read a poem?

In the darkroom, the developer slides the photographic paper into the chemical bath. Slowly, an image emerges. Reading a new poem is a similar process in as much as the full picture does not immediately reveal itself. But that’s as far as that analogy might go. A poem is not a photograph.

The poem as montage, as mosaic, the narrative line pieced together stitch by stitch. Begin anywhere.

Poems are made with words, usually, and words have two basic kinds of meaning, denotative and connotative. With regard to connotative meaning, words suggest, have associative meanings, colloquial twists, and personal meanings. We have our favorite words, and words we find distasteful. “Are you going to eat those adverbs?” “No. I got sick on an adverb once, in grammar school.” Cultural, contextual meanings. We can’t control language.

When encountering a new poem, we ask the traditional questions: who is speaking, with what voice, and what is the intended audience, remembering not to confuse the speaker with the author, the audience for ourselves. What’s the speaker doing, talking about? What the diction, what the tone, what the setting, what the irony?

Here’s the poem under question: “Foxxcan Suicide (Stylish Boys in the Riot),” by Russell Bennetts (the editor of Berfrois). We look for help. Suicide we know. Painless, as the song says, though we doubt that, and that song is not about suicide. A soldier’s choices are limited. Are a reader’s choices similarly limited? Does “Foxxcan” suggest Foxconn, the so-called Foxconn suicides?

I recognize Starnbergersee, from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but is a single word enough to create an association? Why not? Eliot’s poem is fragmentary. “Foxxcan Suicide” is fragmentary, or so it seems. What if picking up on an Eliot reference is wrong? We could ask the author. No. What can the author know of the reader’s experience? Words are out of control once they hit the paper. The poem is a reading experience. And something more than Starnbergersee reminds me of Eliot: the many references, obscure to this reader, though I know who Axl Rose is, sort of, but I can’t say I know him, though he’s from my home town, big town. And the Roses had a label: UZI Suicide. So? Threads, though, links. And I know who Legacy Russell is, though not well enough to get the three asterisks at the end of that line, asterisks that point to no footnote.

Still, I like the new poem. I like the fragmented narrative. I like it for its changes in diction and speech, its orality, its lyrical last stanza, or paragraph, the socio-economic comment it ends on. I like the almost hidden poetic characteristics, the rhyme, for example, of “Legacy,” “easy,” and “please me.” Gradually, more of the picture seems to emerge: the teen spirit (Nirvana). Maybe it’s language that has become suicidal. The poem casts this reader as a kind of outsider, beyond the pale. Maybe I just don’t get it. “Well, how does it feel?”

Some time ago, in a workshop with David Biespiel, we used a kind of shorthand response technique as a way of quickly getting at new reading experiences. David called the technique, “What I See.” You had to tell it, what you saw, in 25 words or less, or so. Kenneth Koch taught a similar kind of technique, an attempt to get at the poem’s “idea.” What’s the idea, Koch asks, of Blake’s poem “The Tyger”? The speaker is asking questions of the wild animal, but of course the Tyger does not respond. The questions the speaker asks seem to have something to do with who made the Tyger, the maker’s character. Blake uses images of a blacksmith to try to picture the Tyger’s maker. For Blake, the blacksmith would still have been a powerful and practical individual, a maker of things useful, but his work was being subsumed at the same time by larger manufacturing forces that would come to be known as the Industrial Revolution. And that revolution would give way to more: “Stylish Boys in the Riot.”

What happens when we read a poem? From the Paris Review Interviews, this one with August Kleinzahler:

INTERVIEWER: Recently Poetry posed a question about the social utility of poetry. Does that interest you?
KLEINZAHLER: No. I agree with Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Nothing else needs to be said about it.

Poetryphobia: Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Life Of Poetry”

The Life of PoetryMuriel Rukeyser’s “The Life Of Poetry” covers the poetic experience, its many uses and resistances, during the 1940’s. Her view of poetry comes from the experience of war, by her participation in freedom efforts prior to the war, and by disappointment the war did not bring peace, and also by science, which suggests a new age for poetry, and by the growing use of popular arts (radio, movies, songs, dance). Muriel argued that US culture feared poetry, where poetry is emotion. Emotion is feared because it calls up and recognizes harm, and asks for reparation for harms done. But who wants to do that? So poetry isn’t a popular art form. It’s not an art form at all. Once poetry becomes an art form, it freezes on the surface: No myth but movement, no still lives, no basket of fruit and the hovering fly that never dies. And the poem is not a “place” (154, 174), the mind not a hunk of meat. Both are energy. The emotion of poetry creates empathy and argues for change. She was writing about silicosis as early as 1938, advocating for victims, explaining the disease. Empathy is recognition, which is also emotion, of the audience, which she prefers to call the witness. What is witnessed? Relationships: between images, sounds, symbols, people, things. And relationships are constantly on the move. Nothing is fixed, not in time, not in space, not in mind.

We probably do dislike poetry, at the least ignore poems, or even scorn poetry, treat poets like vaudeville clowns, but it would seem a bit overwrought today to say we fear poetry. But when Muriel says we fear poetry, she means we are separated from emotion, and the thought of reconnecting to our emotion scares us. Human nature probably does not improve over time, in spite of technological progress, and we may be further removed from emotion today than we were in 1949. The culture Muriel’s talking about does not value emotion, the emotional. The sections of “The Life of Poetry” devoted to the popular arts and the uses of poetry in the sentimental suggest lost opportunities. The popular arts fail to go deep enough. Sentiment is unlike emotion. Emotion is a weakness because, once it is unleashed, it is uncontrollable. Control is a value. One attempts self-control, and when that doesn’t work, control over others. Allowing the working class, the miners and laborers and factory workers and garment sewers and waitresses, weekend release over a couple of beers and a country western song playing on a jukebox, evoking tears, or the equivalent sentiment found in church prayer, is acceptable. But no emotion. Control yourself. Get sentimental if you must. It’s ok to vent. You can wear it on your sleeve, your troubles, but don’t freak out. And self-pity also is sentimental.

“There is difficulty in breathing.
Yes.
And a painful cough?
Yes.
Does silicosis cause death?
Yes, sir.” (Rukeyser, Collected Poems, “The Disease,” 86:87)

Emotion is the weary heart wearing and tearing on the poet’s sleeve. This doesn’t play well in boardrooms, where emotion is kept submerged through charitable donations and the branding of giving, or in churches where the sacrifice is symbolic, or in marriages of competition. Emotion is not anger. Anger is the sediment of sentiment, frustrated or undefined or ill-defined desire. Poetic emotion sublimates repressed desire. Poetic emotion is the sublimation of antithetical cultural values. For example, the auto has ruined the country, the countryside, the culture suffering in detrimental reliance. Without definition, this ruin devolves into road rage, the driver’s psyche full of potholes. Sentiment is nostalgia for a 1957 Chevrolet, road trips, surf safaris. The car is a catastrophe, the planet hit by an asteroid, impossible now to see the earth beneath the asphalt. But the smell of the new car still intoxicates, Whitman’s rooms full of perfumes. What to do about it? Robert Creeley, “I Know a Man”:

drive, he sd, for  
christ’s sake, look  
out where yr going.”

The novel as middle class entertainment contains emotion; that is, the novel packages emotion, places limits on emotion, surrounds emotion with form. As for the dime store novel, mysteries, detective stories, noir: the term “hard boiled” is born of sentiment. The so-called seedy section of the city boils with sentiment. The sentimental love to visit, but they don’t want to live there. It’s good to have someone to look down on, to criticize, to arrest. Likewise, poetry as craft is sentimental where it deliberately obscures to imitate emotion. The merely personal or found fabrications or wordplay that does not touch the human condition is entertainment. Not that entertainment isn’t useful; it is, but it’s not poetry. Poetry is the marriage of play and work, where play pays dividends and work pays nothing but a release of emotion, which spells trouble. Muriel describes a workshop exercise (179) that might be called “where’s the poem”? The poem exists in the imagination of the witness, and that’s not craft. A poem is not words.

There is a war between play and work, between worker and exploiter, between the divided selves. Poetry acknowledges the war and becomes a tool to make people whole again. Emotion is the stain of war that poetry seeks to clean. There’s another reason emotion is devalued, suggests Muriel. Emotion connects to nature, to trees, to roots, to the land and to animals. That’s seen as cutting into profits, though it need not. To reach down into the emotion that connects the human to the planet requires a reevaluation of the relationship. Today’s eMotion is backlit. That’s not the emotion Muriel is talking about. Muriel’s emotion sews together symmetrically a sensorium distorted by technology as in a funny mirror. Muriel’s emotion deals with alienations and depravations, goods and evils.

Important poets for Muriel included Whitman and Melville. Whitman is the poet who discovered good, and good is his breathy line, the form of the discovered self, the freed self. To Melville passed the work of dealing with evil. Muriel foreshadows the current crisis in the Humanities by juxtaposing poetry with science, comparing methods, making good use of science. Imagine your kid comes home and tells you he’s decided to study to be a cave wall painter, and he’s going to work in caves, painting on walls by the light of a torch. Fear of poetry is about resistance to emotion, but more, about the resistance to the imagination, about inability to even recognize the imagination.

“The Life of Poetry” is not an academic book (a good thing), but it’s not an easy book. For one thing, the references to popular culture are antiquated, and some of the references are obscure. For another, there’s evidence on every page the writing is the work of a poet. But by the last two chapters (the penultimate “Out of Childhood,” and the last, beginning “The Meaning of Peace”), the prose becomes familiar, the writing a little less fearful.

The Bad Hop Boat Poem

You watch
Baseball
and recall
the hit
that took a bad hop,
bebopping
between your legs
like a line
impossible
to scan,
bouncing
over your glove
touching
the dirt.
No one is listening.
Even the umpire
shook his head.
“Shake it off,”
Coach called
from the critical
dugout.
“Bad hop,”
the gracious
pitcher said.
But no, even now
you can not
accept the excuse,
because you
fear the ball
& the poem,
as you explain:
“I was thinking t i l l e r
of a boat f  u
on the high o d
C’s.” l  d
A e
Infield poem b  r  u  n
error full o w
confuses v o
a boat with t h e b a l l
o
 “E6,” says C C C C C w C critic.
C C C C C C
C C C C C C
C C C C C C
C C C C C C

Dear Reader: “Charming Gardeners,” by David Biespiel

There used to be a public telephone booth down on the corner from our place, the kind the caller entered through a panel glass door and dropped coins into the phone, outside the cleaners, across from the realtor’s office, the street corner just a dot of commercial activity in an otherwise residential neighborhood. The telephone booth got hit with graffiti occasionally, or a pumpkin around Halloween, and the glass was often in need of repair. The door broke and was discarded, the telephone book disappeared from its chain, and finally the box was taken away. The booth attracted activity, some locals opined of the nefarious sort. The booth might have represented to some a stranger. At night, a small lamp lit the booth. Outside the booth, a couple of newspaper stands added to the tiny urban pastoral. One day, out walking, I passed by the booth, and the phone rang.

On the corner across from the phone booth stood a blue mailbox. The mailbox got more business than the telephone booth, but not enough, apparently, for it too was taken away. The newspaper boxes that stood next to the phone booth have also been removed. The cleaners closed, and for a time the corner reminded me of an abandoned gas stop on a two-lane road bypassed by a highway. Bit of an exaggeration, that, but not much, for like the telephone booths, many of the mailboxes in the Southeast Portland neighborhoods are disappearing, and the small bookstores, like the newspaper stands, are being rooted out, also. Last year, one of my favorite small bookstores, Murder by the Book, at the west end of the Hawthorne district, met its demise.

Really? Are we to read yet another letter on the disappearance of newspapers, books, newsstands and bookstores, and poetry?

Not at all. Some things don’t change, among them, Emily Dickinson’s one way missive: “Her Message is committed / To Hands I cannot see.” And what better way to illustrate the stubbornness of the staying power of poetry than a book of poems in which each poem is a letter to someone? We save letters, but first we have to write them, send and receive them.

Poetry, as John Cage said of music, occurs whether we intend it or not, but we won’t have the unintended poetry of letters if we stop writing letters. The democratically accessible form of the letter is still with us, even if mailboxes are becoming scarce. Is an email not the same as a letter? An email is a phone call compared to a letter. Letters don’t have the immediacy of an email. Letters are not immediately delivered, and we don’t expect an immediate reply. We might wait weeks or months for a reply, or years. But we probably wouldn’t resend the letter, noting “2nd request” in the subject line, as we do with emails. Letters can be a bit of a hassle to write, requiring a kind of toolkit: paper, pen, table, envelope, address, stamp, mailbox. Letters, perhaps, require more of an occasion than emails, occasion to write, more of a purpose. If you really want to get someone’s attention, you don’t send them an email; you write them a letter. Letters are more difficult to forward than emails. And the letter might be returned, as emails are sometimes returned, too, as undeliverable. Or a letter might wind up in the dead letter post office, and you might never know if your letter sent was ever received or read.

Melville’s Bartleby worked in a dead letter office before going to work as a scrivener for the lawyer who narrates the tale. Where have all the scriveners gone? The poet Charles Olson’s father was a mailman. In “The Post Office: A Memoir of My Father” (1948), Olson describes how, through office politics, misunderstandings, and general stubbornness all around, his father had his mail route taken away from him. Olson explains the importance to letter carriers of personalized routes, but also explains how the letter carrier is important to the community of people on the route. Olson explains how the mail carrier becomes a confidant reader and the most knowledgable person in the neighborhood of personal affairs:

“Mail, over any length of time, will tell secrets a neighbor could not guess. Nor do I mean the reading of postcards or the ‘lamping’ of letters. Nor what a man hears over a coffee. Or that a man’s mail does not always come to his house, or a woman’s either. It lies more in the manner in which people look for, ask for, receive their mail. And talk about it” (43).

Olson insists this is “not to be mistaken for nostalgia,” for the post office was akin to the military, and letter carrying is hard work, hard on the body. Yet the loss of Olson’s father’s route was both the loss of valued labor and the loss of an identity. Not for nothing does a man wear a uniform.

Another Charles and poet, Charles Bukowski, explains further, in his novel “Post Office” (1971), about his days as a letter carrier in Los Angeles, in bitter, sardonic, and laughing prose, what carrying the mail is all about:

“There were 40 or 50 different routes, maybe more, each case was different, you were never able to learn any of them, you had to get your mail up and ready before 8 a.m. for the truck dispatches, and Jonstone [supervisor] would take no excuses. The subs routed their magazines on corners, went without lunch, and died in the streets” (10).

But the point here is that bit from Olson about “how mail is received.” That’s the poetry. And try giving someone a poem, not publishing a poem, but just give someone a poem, as a letter, and see how he or she receives it. You’ll learn more about that person than you might learn sitting over coffee or beers talking about children or baseball.

I’ve often felt about poetry what the poet Marianne Moore said in her distinctive poem titled, simply, “Poetry”:

“I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all
this fiddle.”

But fiddle is a perfect word to describe the activity of poetry, where the gig is a jig of restlessness, and I like to fiddle, more and more these days, if fingerpicking the Telecaster qualifies as fiddling. And I like to watch a fiddler at work, pushing and pulling the bow. In any case, we might get very little actual fiddling at a poetry reading. By the time the poet takes the mic, the fiddling part is over. He puts the bow aside and starts to talk. But the poem as letter suggests an importance Moore’s definition seems to discount. Don’t go near the water if you don’t want to get wet.

DB ReadsThe rectangular space of the swimming pool, the opening of the swimming hole, the lake or ocean cove below the cliff as a page. The poem as a dive, form, and a form of competition, an argument. The poet, a high diver, slips into the water, no splash, no wake, surfaces, swims to the ladder, climbs out, takes his seat. The poet David Biespiel has been a diver. I don’t know if that matters much to the enjoyment or understanding or getting at his poems, overall. But I thought about it as I walked down to Powell’s Books in the Hawthorne district a week ago to listen to David read for the launch of his new book of poems, “Charming Gardeners,” the poems conceived and formatted as letters. I listened, observed what I could of the audience, doodled some, was distracted by the books on stacks surrounding the podium and audience – some funny titles out of context, ironic when juxtaposed to the reading, the room holding the Young Adult category of books:

“Hideous Love,” “Wild Boy,” “How to Love,”  “Pretenders,” “Frozen,” “Sick,” “The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire,” “Chasing Shadows,” “Captain Cat,” “A Taste of the Moon.”

I need to get back over there and browse through some of them.

The last time I was at Powell’s on Hawthorne for a reading was to hear Patricia Marx, of the New Yorker, upon the launch of her new novel, “Him Her Him Again the End of Him,” (2008). There were about 12 people in the audience on a bitter winter evening. I was there with Eric in support of some high school assignment-deal. Patty tried playing a recording of some kind, but the technology failed for some reason. But I enjoyed her, nevertheless. A live reading is like live music, better than radio, but only in some ways. Because listening to the radio at home, you can get work done around the house. But in a reading you have to sit still and be polite (Biespiel’s was not a Beat reading accompanied by a jazz combo) and not fidget, sort of like being in church, the folding chairs as uncomfortable as pews. This isn’t always the case, depending on venue. The Robert B. Laughlin lecture Eric and I attended (out on another high school assignment junket) back in 2005 sported a rowdy crowd of all ages and disciplines, as the rousing Q&A following the lecture showed.

DB Notes 2Poems as letters, or letters as poems, I’m not sure which comes first, but the idea raises the hand for a question. What is the intended audience? And is the reader a voyeur, as David, perhaps jokingly, suggested? And recall Emily’s note: the writer can’t see the hands of the letter holder, not unless the writer is also the letter carrier. The epistle is an old form. David said something about the letter as poem narrowing the audience, the focus now on an individual, not a song to nobody in particular. William Carlos Williams: “To Daphne and Virginia” [his daughters-in-law], the beginning of the second verse:

“Be patient that I address you in a poem,
there is no other
fit medium” (“Selected Poems,” 1968, 134)

DB Notes 1David read five poems at Powell’s on Hawthorne the evening of the book launch reading: “To Wendy from Yellow Hickory”; “To Buckley from Berkeley”; To Wiman from Walla Walla”; “To Lenney from the Greenbrier Hotel,” and “To C. D. from D. C.” These are lengthy, traveling poems that talk and click along like a train (though most of the travel is by plane), engines full of breath. I was reminded of Whitman, the way he adds on, continually, one thought giving rise to the next, unafraid of repetition, commenting on the landscape, ideas, people, as he goes, adding comments, evaluative, reflective, and several of the poems mention Whitman. In “To Buckley from Berkeley,” for example, which begins, “Dear Bill” (as if we are on familiar terms – you see the extent to which the trope can travel), the letter goes on for 18 lines before we get a period, and what follows is this: “That, Bill, and also this:” followed by another 41 lines before the next period. (If unfamiliar with Buckley, enjoy an introduction by viewing video of segments of his TV show, “Firing Line.” Here, via YouTube, he talks with poet Allen Ginsberg, and Ginsberg, another Whitman influenced poet, reads a poem, which he seems to have mostly, impressively, memorized; he wrote it, he says, while on LSD, but watch Buckley’s, famous for his facial expressions, reactions. A better introduction to Buckley is his book “Buckley: The Right Word,” a book I enjoyed.) But some find Whitman an old coot, and Ginsberg, too, and, as entertaining as he was, Buckley was an old coot, too. Even as a young man, Buckley was already an old coot, conservative, tight blazer and tie. Maybe it’s hard to be a cootless poet. But a drift toward cootness was something Ginsberg and Buckley shared.

Anyway, I am very much enjoying “Charming Gardeners.” It’s an encyclopedic book, chock-full of references of every kind, both personal and general. It’s a book that strikes out to find America, an act that may or may not require preparatory reading. There’s a “Postscript” of explanatory notes. The note to the letter-poem “To Hugo from Sodo,” for example, explains that SoDo, in Seattle speak, refers to the area south of downtown Seattle, an area I’m familiar with. It’s an industrial district. From the I-5, drivers can see SoDo sprawled out along the waterfront, the new stadium now an iconic part of the scene. The Seattle Mariners used the acronym in a marketing campaign, “Sodo Mojo.” More poets should attach notes to their work. Marianne Moore often provided her readers with notes. Then again, while sometimes the notes help, sometimes we feel the bottom fall away even deeper. “Charming Gardeners” is so full of references that it will take a long time to read – if one is to track all the references down. But that’s the idea. It’s a watershed, full of names (“…the law firm / Of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassidy, and Corso,” for example – funny, that) and locations all around the country, and events, historical and local. Other topics: baseball, the Civil War, God, cities, politics, illness, love.

That day I was out walking and walked by the telephone booth down on the corner, and the phone rang. Are you not interested in whether or not I answered it? And if I did, who was on the other end? There’s no chance to answer it now; the telephone booth has disappeared. This is why we should continue to write letters. Whether we turn them into poems or not is a different matter. But most people like reading letters; most people like to get mail. But someone has to start the chain. For a poet, a letter ensures, maybe, at least one reader.

Related Post: Walt Whitman and a Letter of Ourself - How a letter I wrote to one of my sisters came back to me, some 40 years later.

Off Leash

Psychedelic Dog

“Call me Ishmael. No, wait. Call me Ichabod. I don’t know. Call me Ivanhoe. Just kidding. Call me a cab. Call me anytime. Just give a whistle. Call me Isabel, Isabel Archer. No way! Just kidding. Lovely portrait, though. Wouldn’t you agree? Call me up in springtime. Call me Ichiro. Call me Iago. Yuch! Call me Ian Fleming. Call me Inspector Immortal. Hay-hay! He-he! Hi-hi! Ho-ho! Hoo-hoo! Call me a star! Just don’t call me serious.”

Cats on a Dog Day

“Seriously? Are you going to stand for this?”
“Call me chagrined.”

The Old Factory Blues

The Old Factory Blues

- What are you doing?
- You stink!
- Before we decide if something stinks, what must we analyze?
- But you stink!
- Stink is an argument of definition.
- Pshew! Just like you to ignore cause and effect.

- I’m reminded of the story of the old factory blues.
- What’s a factory?
- A factory is a place where they make things.
- Was I made in a factory?
- You were made in a dumpster under blue neon in an alley across from a factory.
- What did they make in the factory?

- Every evening sharply at five a great whistle blew, scaring all the alley cats but me. As you know, I’m not one to flinch at noise. And after the whistle, the factory hands came out and petted me and fed me scraps from their lunch pails.
- Really? Good stuff?
- Oh, my, yes: bits of smelly tuna fish, little curds of cottage cheese, spam cans still with some fatty gel stuck to the bottom.
- Sounds delish, so why the blues?

- One day, the whistle stopped blowing, and the factory was surrounded by a fence of barbed wire. The factory hands disappeared, and a giant blue spotlight was erected to light the alley throughout the night, all but drowning out the small blue neon above the dumpster.
- What did they make in the factory?
- Golden gooses.
- Why do I smell a moral to a story coming on?
- If there is a moral to the story, it is that life stinks, but which leads to a secondary, paradoxical moral.
- I’m breathless. A double moral story.
- And the second moral is that it is the very stink of life that recalls the sweet smell of love, of who we are and where we come from.
- Ah, that story stinks!

Psychosomatic foghorn earborn earworms!

Reading Lists“I see you and Joe finished that book on mistakes. Was it good?”
“Joe posted some notes to his blog.”
“Did anyone read that post? I noticed he got no likes or comments.”
“To be a blogger is to go unread as no author dare go unread.”
“What?”
“Never mind.”
“So what are you reading now?”
“I’m thinking of picking up The Sorrows of Young Werther.”
“Sounds like an unnecessary error. I just read for fun.”
“What is fun?”
“Psychosomatic foghorn earborn earworms!”
“Please don’t say that again.”
“So did you help Joe with that post?”
“I put forth a few views.”
“Phew! Thinko agin!”
“Agenbite of widget.”
“Let’s go outside and have some fun!”
“I recall a moment, long ago, that may have been fun.”
“That’s the spirit! Let’s go!”

Related Posts: Common Earworm Remedies and the Mutant Earworm
A Cat’s Memoir
Notes On Reading Caleb Crain’s “Necessary Errors”

The Root of the Matter

A
poem
in the shape
of a tree. A poem
about a tree in the shape
of a tree. Some will argue it’s neither
a poem nor a tree, not a real tree, anyway.
Critics will argue the tree is not a poem, because
it has neither rhyme nor stanzas, though the lines do
present shape. Some will say, as a critic once commented
following an investors’ viewing of a B movie still in the editing cut
phase: “Does anyone else feel a better use of this particular roll of celluloid
would be to cut it up for guitar picks?” Some will say the tree should be cut down,
or yanked out by enormous
dentistry-like heavy equipment,
the kind used to clear cut forests.
Thus we arrive at the bare tap root
of
the
ma
t
t
er.

99 Bottles Over the Wall

On the tabletop of the sea sat a few empty bottles
surrounded by the detritus of discussion.
No burning butts, though,
the bar under water, the talk polite,
as if no riptide of innuendo threatened to drown out the quip.

Paddling out is hard enough; now
how does the stranded entrepreneur get back to the strand,
having drifted so far out?
The question is rhetorical and impossible, an impassable bottle.

This great bottle business denial,
all in the business of passing bottles,
unable to pass on this impassability business.

Across the bar there is no mission statement:
free to wander and listen to the swimming voices, sailing and selling, tacking back and forth, bantering and bartering.
Eventually, all sink, subsumed or consumed,
bottled in the great Ocean of Business,
no need for pain or pleasure, fear or courage, emotions or metaphor, opinion or belief,
swallowed within the immense immortal impassable snorkel bottle.

Kirill Medvedev: “It’s No Good”

Kirill Medvedev’s poems are easy to get into. He explains situations, tells stories about people. You don’t mind listening and want to hear more. He’s contemplative and calm and reasonable, even when he’s making a wakeup call, dissing and dressing down, asking why things can’t be rearranged. The vocabulary isn’t hard. The figurative language is sparse. “I don’t like metaphors,” he says (74). The poems are slim, fat free, figureless. In some lines, he’s almost like a stand-up comic, in his delivery, his next move always a surprise. But the poems challenge in other ways. If you’re not laughing, you might be his subject, and the venue seems either oppressive or empty tonight. Medvedev’s concerns are the Man (government, politics, power), Work and Money (economics, business, family), and Free Time (culture – what we do when we get off work – trust, honesty, values). He puts those concerns into his poems, essays, and special pieces he calls “actions.”

It’s No Good: poems / essays / actions” includes selections of Kirill Medvedev’s writing from 2000 through 2012. Published in December 2012 by Ugly Duckling Presse, you can get a copy as a giveaway incentive with a new print subscription to n+1. While Medvedev, like Faulkner’s Isaac, has renounced his copyright, the English translations from the Russian original are copyrighted by Keith Gessen, who provides an introduction, and several other translators. “It’s No Good” is an argument. What’s no good? The title is from Medvedev’s first book of poems. Gessen explains the Russian title, “Vsyo plokho,” can be translated into “Everything’s Bad.” Medvedev is talking about the predicament of a nascent generation, and poetry becomes the window through which everything can be thrown.

Poetry, for Medvedev, is “an authentic way of seeing, the degree of its expressiveness the only criterion by which you can determine its quality” (125). This would seem to be a good, and it is: “I am, of course, exaggerating,” he says. “I’m forcing reality to fit under my favorite rubric of ‘it’s no good.’ It’s not entirely true; some things are good; there are oases” (124). The problem, why everything might be bad, is that our contemporary predicament includes more than poetry. But to know what poetry is and what you are trying to make with it is not a bad predicament. It’s a good start to know

“…your own worth)
…to determine
THE CAPACITY
to see and accept yourself
as you are” (74-75).

And then what? “We need to do away with this false notion of ‘poetry as private activity’” (136).

Charles Bukowski is precursor to Medvedev’s poetic attitude. Medvedev translated Bukowski from English to Russian, but he knows he’s not Bukowski, nor does he want to be. Bukowski is rude and raw, cusses in his poems, drinks to excess, and is apolitical and not socially engaged. He’s an outsider, sits alone at the end of the bar, but when he talks, he’s clear. What Medvedev has in common with Bukowski is an absence of compromise, honesty (which means speaking clearly of your predicament, your situation, in a contemporary voice), and a disdain for the various fine clothes and perfumes that poems are sometimes made to wear:

“everything is
nothing, everything is
nothing, just the way it
started, I kiss statues
and the flies circle singing
rot, rot, rot” (Bukowski, from “Song of the Flies“).

Bukowski, a son of Los Angeles, grew up in good weather, but the Great Depression hit from without and from within. He grew up in a “house of horrors” (see “Ham on Rye“).

“From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State” (see Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner“). Yes, from mom’s syrupy womb, we all slip and fall into our father’s house, a country governed by an attitude, and if your father happens to be temperamental, poetry may be one of the few options available to escape his pincer plier grasp. “I’m a child of the Russian intelligentsia, I’m a person of culture” (122) Medvedev says (his italics), another difference between him and Bukowski, I thought, until I got to his definition of culture. Culture, for Medvedev, is connecting to the predicament of the weary. He speaks a kind of “Weary Blues,” as Langston Hughes wrote. The Soviet Union has collapsed, but there are problems with the renaissance. In the Dylan song “It’s All Good” (“Together Through Life” 2009), the phrase is used sarcastically. The phrase is a political speech, an aphoristic tip of the hat to the power of positive thinking folks, an advertisement for soap or cigarettes, Faulkner’s lament that the US has found no other place for the artist than to use his celebrity to sell something. The phrase it’s all good suggests art must remain a positive thing, to clean up everything bad. Art must not contribute to the bad. Medvedev’s title “It’s No Good” is an opposing viewpoint to the hollow socio-political phrase “It’s All Good”; or is it:

“so everything’s all right.
although, maybe the fact that
everything’s all right is the problem?
no, that’s not a problem.

or maybe it’s that when everything’s all right,
that just doesn’t sit well with me?
no, it sits well.

(then what the hell?)” (note: ellipsis in penultimate line is part of the poem, 213).

What’s a good poem in Medvedev’s view? You don’t hear Medvedev talking about craft. A good poem must be new (if what you’re into is craft, your poem is old at conception), and a good new poem must contemplate a new audience, one that didn’t exist prior to the poem. The poem draws a crowd (184). This may sound like a fad or pop art call-out, but it’s a great challenge to “light out for the territory ahead of all the rest,” as Huck said, to avoid the old ways of getting civilized. This is the reason Medvedev turned away from the traditional forms of writing, publishing, and hobnobbing in the literary world. Most of “It’s No Good” was published originally on his website following his renunciation of his copyright. He explains why he started a blog. And “It’s No Good” ends with selected poems originally published by Medvedev on his Facebook page. Imagine John Ashbery or Billy Collins starting to self-publish their poems on a Facebook page. Imagine the look on their literary agents’ faces. These guys have agents, but it should be noted that very few poets have agents, because there’s no money in poetry: a poet could craft a manned spaceship to Mars in a poem, solve the riddle of dark matter in a metaphor, steal the Pope’s hat in a trope - there would still be no money in his poetry. So why shouldn’t Ashbery and Collins earn a bit of dough with their poems? It’s all good.

It’s not that Medvedev did not have status as a poet. He studied at the Moscow “Lit. Institute,” was published as a poet, journalist, and critic, is a translator, gave readings, but apparently, with regard to those things, “it’s no good.” Contemporary poets like Medvedev take risks, and there’s a certain kind of toughness required. Poetry is no good; it’s all good. Throughout “It’s No Good,” Medvedev talks about past Russian writers, imprisonments during the Soviet era, all sorts of harassment, the risks of failure and loss, and particularly the political engagement that often results in exile, censorship, or worse (Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, comes to mind; and in the US, the McCarthy years of blacklisting and the numbing that came from the naming of names), and Medvedev speaks clearly, eloquently, and with great empathy for oppressed individuals and peoples. And throughout all of this he emphasizes a perhaps obvious but powerful point: you don’t have to be a politician to participate in politics. This is why the anthologized poem is effete and a waste of Medvedev’s time and energy (198). One of Medvedev’s poems, titled “How’s This for a Poem?,” is made from the text of a press interview with a crane operator given after he was fired from his job for trying to help organize workers. Medvedev gets out the caps in the last stanza:

“BUT IT’S ALRIGHT life goes on
and as for me, given all the free time
Surgutneftegaz has accidentally presented me with,
I INTEND TO USE IT EVERY SINGLE DAY
TO FIGHT FOR PEOPLE’S RIGHTS – THEIR HUMAN
RIGHTS” (note: caps are part of the poem, 220).

“It’s No Good” doesn’t so much end as stop. Because it’s now today, and we are free once again to move about. Or are we? In the last section of the last poem a young widowed mother soothes her child to sleep in a working class nativity scene. She wants her child to grow strong to continue the fight. The fight for what? We’ve been through two decades of “It’s No Good,” witnessed, of course vicariously, the exploitations and losses, the external chaos that seems to galvanize the internal despair, wars and fights, and the competing interests of groups and individuals. That’s all a reader can do, witness vicariously, but a writer like Medvedev is both a reader and a person of action, a true poet, which for him means to influence change. But what if the child wants to “light out for the territory”? Can that right be subsumed too? But there is no territory that is not somehow enabled by connections, Medvedev would say. How should we act, behave, in a fatherless state – this is now Medvedev’s concern. Father Bear has finally wandered off for good, isn’t coming home anymore. We are free to move about, must move about.

And once up and moving about, then what? “No work of art is a thing in itself, as bourgeois thought claims,” Medvedev says. He carefully considers the values of pure art, straightforward utterance, the new sincerity (or the new emotionalism, which sounds like the breakout of memoir here in the US), and dismisses them all as avoidances, enablements, co-optations. Nor is art “a divine reflection, as religious thought claims, but evidence of all of society’s defects, including the relations of the dominant and dominated. The task of innovative art is to insist on the uniqueness of the individual while revealing the genuine relations between people, the true connections in society, and, as a result, to forge a new reality” (199-203, 237).

Joyce comes to mind, who at the end of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” has decided to leave his country and home and family:

“—Look here, Cranly, he said. You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning….

Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Joyce was on the run from two masters, the Church and imperial Britain (“Ulysses“), but while Joyce would have, in Medvedev’s view, influenced literature, he would not have influenced politics. He would not have made a difference in his reader’s lives. And what difference he did make might now seem a disaster given how buried and anthologized he’s become in the academy, how many lives have been lost to peer review, a country with a stingy father and stiff immigration laws. Again from the final poem in “It’s No Good”:

“…for the moment
the progressive labor activists have a higher political consciousness
than the intellectuals,
than the professors,
it’s just too bad there are so few of them” (271-272).

“It’s No Good” is full of history, past and present, stories and anecdotes, commentary, reports of daily events. It’s significantly more than a book of poems, more than mere literature. It’s a book to be read and re-read, a book that encourages reflection on one’s place and activity in the web. Gessen’s introduction and the many footnotes throughout are helpful, and there are many paths pointed out for further reading.

Kirill Medvedev, “It’s No Good.” (2012). Edited and introduced by Keith Gessen. Translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen with Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill, and Bela Shayevich. n+1 / Ugly Duckling Presse, Eastern European Poets Series #30. ISBN 978-1-933254-94-4.

30 Jul 2013: Interview with Kirill Medvedev at Boston Review
30 Sep 2013: “Kirill Medvedev’s Personable Provocations” at The New Yorker Blog

Verlyn Klinkenborg: “Several short sentences about writing”

In the beginning was the word, and the word was a sentence.
And the sentence was an assignment.
And the assignment broiled in the brain,
that alchemical brewpub of doubt.
A devil came near, cooing, “Plagiarize, my dear;
allow me to serve the sentence for you.”
A good angel appeared: “Depart, ye fiends of papers for free.
Ditch, web dwellers of rehearsed research.
Begone, you bad teachers of bad writing.
Students can do this on their own.”
And singing Blake’s proverb, from
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,
“No bird soars too high if he soars
with his own wings,” the angel dropped a book
into the waiting writer’s lap, and flew away.

What book did this fresh, good angel drop, which might bargain anew all the how-tos with writing students and their teachers both in and out of academia? Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several short sentences about writing (Vintage, April 2013). Klinkenborg challenges schooled approaches consisting of “received wisdom about how writing works” (Prologue). Klinkenborg turns the traditional writing teacher on his head and shakes the bulges out of his pockets. All sorts of found, useless stuff drops out, lightening the student’s load. Klinkenborg speaks to the writing “piece,” considers genre arbitrary and binding. He eschews genres and schools and rules. But not grammar and syntax. Loves the fragment, not the run-on. His style is controlled by “implication.” Implication is a good sentence’s great secret, its ability to suggest thought. His sentences often illustrate their own attributes. The book as a whole is a study and a reflection on that study of the sentence. The book’s prose is cut into lines that emphasize what’s necessary to read a sentence for its syntax and rhythm and space. Some may see this as mere trickery, and maybe the book is a slow, idiosyncratic, quiet rant. His discussion of “rhetorical tics,” the bane of Freshman Composition that remains through graduate school and beyond like an old scar, is funny and sad (118). If you’ve ever completed any assignments on your own, you might recognize yourself in his descriptions of a web of false writing. I did. But I also saw many hunches I’ve had over time validated: writing is learned while writing and in no other way; a good writer is a good reader, a good proofreader, but also a good general interest reader, which means not having to have something that “interests me” before being able to read it, because good writing creates its own interest; teachers have done so much damage to students that many students would rather risk plagiarism than think and write on their own.

There are contradictions, difficult to resolve. Klinkenborg says, on page 57, “You don’t need to be an expert in grammar and syntax to write well.” I agree. The apparent contradiction is that he then spends the next sizable section of the book on what we should know about grammar. “You do need to know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs,” he says, but he doesn’t say why, nor does he try to explain that difference (though the answer might be found in an implication I missed). If we don’t need to know grammar, why spend time on it? This is an important question. And of course we do know grammar. We learned grammar when we learned to speak. But we may not know how to talk about grammar or to read for grammar or syntax. And some knowledge of parts of speech and what we think of as grammatical terms might be important to certain kinds of reading. He wants us to find words in a dictionary and to notice etymology and parts of speech. This is sound. But some of his precepts seem vague, even New-Agey. Explaining implication, he says it’s “The ability to speak to the reader in silence” (13). Well, John Cage did speak to the reader in silence. And Klinkenborg’s many references to the way we were taught to write in school are at risk of becoming a kind of straw man argument. Has no one tried to dig through the dried up crap of fabricated rules before? But the straw man here, if there is one, might be personified as an industry of text books, so the challenge is worth the charge. Klinkenborg may not be an archangel delivering a sacred text, but his book clears the air for a spell.

A colleague suggested the Klinkenborg book, and I’m glad to have read it and to recommend it for general interest readers, writing teachers at any level, and students at any level, anyone, in short, in or out of school, interested in reading or writing. Yes, Klinkenborg wants to talk to the whole writing world about sentences. He wants to non-specialize the traditional approaches to thinking about writing, remove bogus rules from circulation, instill faith and trust in aspiring readers and writers.

Several short sentences about writing is divided into four major sections and many subsections. The book (204 pages) does not wear its skeleton on the outside. The main sections are as follows: 1 – a short prologue; 2 – the central text (146 pages), the sentences arranged in cut lines, like verse (opposite of what we’ve come to expect from prose); 3 –  “Some Prose and Some Questions,” eleven short prose excerpts by established writers, followed by a section inviting analysis of the pieces through reflection suggested by specific questions Klinkenborg provides; and 4 - Some Practical Problems, 33 pages of short sentences from student writing, with short comments by Klinkenborg. It’s not a text book, but it could be used as a text. But that would require, perhaps, changing the mindset of an instructor, or even of an entire English department, or at least calling upon instructors to reconsider traditional “received wisdom about how writing works,” or how the teaching and learning of writing might work.

Here’s an example of a wonderful Klinkenborg sentence fragment: “The faint vertigo caused by an ambiguity you can’t quite detect” (55). This is quoted unfairly out of context (is there any other way to quote?), but who is “you” here? What kind of reading experience must one have to get dizzy reading a poor sentence? And here’s an example of the way he challenges the august teaching community: “…The assumption that logic persuades the reader instead of the clarity of what you’re saying” (117).

By implication, at least, Klinkenborg’s sentences touch on many of the topics usually covered in composition classes: research, authority, argument, outlining, chronology and sequence, style, ambiguity, rules, rubrics, writing models, imitation, rhythm, revision, editing, meaning, figurative language, transitions, reading, reader, clarity. The sentences wit and cut new paths through this overgrown field.

If you are into marginalia, this Klinkenborg book is a lepidopterist’s field day. I found myself chasing sentences around the book as if they were butterflies. My copy is a mess of notes. I was inspired to try my hand at an original sentence. Here goes nothing: Thoughts without sentences are like flowers that never bloom, each tightly wrapped petal a word waiting to become part of a sentence to be smelled, to be read or heard in a single breath. Klinkenborg would say it’s too long, ambiguous, cliched, doesn’t breathe. And it doesn’t make sense. Do we hear through breathing? Sounds like something a Woody Allen character might say, the audience erupting in laughter, the irony on you. “The most subversive thing you can do is to write clearly and directly…” (132). Easy for him to say.

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