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.

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.

p-1: The Evil Hill on Mariposa

n+1 vs The BelieverIf print does disappear, I will be only partially responsible. I’m doing my part to keep a few print publications healthy. But I can’t subscribe to everything. The question is always the same: what to read and how. A loyal subscriber to The Believer, alas, my subscription has lapsed, and just prior to the 2013 music issue, which turned out to be jazz inspired. Bummer.

I’ve been comparing the cover changes over time of the New Yorker with the cover changes of the Rolling Stone. “Time is real,” Cornel West reminds us. But a few weeks ago, finding myself reading, with interest, no less, in the New Yorker, a “Tables for Two” eatery review of a restaurant I’ll never eat at, I decided I’d better augment the New Yorker and replace The Believer with something new. Meantime, I had discovered Kirill Medvedev, and noticed that n+1, which I follow, sporadically, on-line, was giving away the Medvedev “It’s No Good” book with a new subscription, so I went for it. And last week, the Fall 2013 n+1 print issue arrived, red dressed, calling itself the Evil Issue. Evil? Really? I felt the proverbial wince of buyer’s remorse.

I sat down and opened my n+1. I glanced guardedly through the table of contents, not one for haunted houses, horror films, that sort of thing. Something here by Marco Roth on politics, on drones – ok, that’s evil. A drama piece titled “sixsixsix.” Why do folks think Satan evil? Consider Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at Uberty [a lot] when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Still perusing the evil issue’s table of contents and glancing through the articles to see what I might want to start with, I came to something from the Stanford Literary Lab, titled “Style at the Scale of the Sentence.” I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve decided it’s at the heart of the evil issue for a reason. Then I saw this, which took me by surprise: Alice Gregory’s article titled “Mavericks: Life and death surfing,” and soon found myself into the evil issue in earnest.

If the entire evil issue was instead titled “Mavericks” and filled with Alice’s writing about surfing I would be a happy reader. The only problem with the article is it’s only ten pages, which means back to the Literary Lab’s “Sentence” article too soon. Maybe I should have renewed The Believer, after all, seen if they’d send me the music issue I missed. On jazz! Jazz in the evening can turn an evil day good. Wondering about the etymology of the word evil, I found this in Wiktionary: “from Proto-Indo-European *upo, *up, *eup (“down, up, over”).” Ah ha! That’s a definition of surfing. One of the best pieces of journalistic writing on surfing I’ve ever read came in the New Yorker, back in 1992, written by William Finnegan, himself a surfer. “Surfing is not a spectator sport,” he says in the second of the two-week, long article. In the first week, Finnegan had said, describing the surf at Ocean Beach, off San Francisco, “The waves were big, ragged, relentless, with no visible channels for getting through the surf from the shore.” Conditions in the water, often fast changing, are difficult to read from the shore. Waves always seem bigger to the surfer in them than to the spectator watching from the beach or from a cliff high above the water. I read the long Finnegan piece twice before mailing my two copies with the articles to an old surfing buddy, not much of a reader, who later called me, totally stoked.

Preparatory to surfing, back in the day, hey-hey, kids growing up in South Santa Monica Bay rode skateboards: literally, the wheels removed from old roller skates and nailed to the bottom of a two by four, crude vehicles compared to today’s boards. I lived on Mariposa, at the bottom of a long, steep hill, followed by a short straightaway, then an easy hill ending at my house on the corner. The houses on Mariposa backed up to railroad tracks (since removed). Between the railroad tracks and the back fences was a path the local kids called “Devil’s Path” or “Devil’s Pass,” a shortcut toward downtown. We regularly rode skateboards up and down the mild Mariposa hill, but to ride a board from the top of Mariposa was considered a daredevil feat.

One day, my friend Pete Ponopsko, a few years older than me, took a skateboard to the top of upper Mariposa. He was going to ride down the big hill and would pick up enough momentum to carry him through the straightaway and down the lower hill all the way to the bottom. A small crowd of skateboard aficionados positioned themselves mid straightaway, where we could watch Pete whiz by on his way to the lower hill.

One of the problems with early skateboard technology was shakiness. At fast speeds, the boards wobbled side to side. Another problem had to do with the metal, roller skate wheels. A pebble might catch under a wheel and brake it, stopping the board and throwing the rider forward. We never knew for sure what went wrong with Pete’s ride down the upper hill. Some said the board shimmied so severely he simply could not keep his balance. Others said he hit a rock and pearled. Still others said Pete chickened out and tried to jump off. Whatever the cause, the effects included a startling array of raspberry red scrapes and bruises along one side of Pete’s body, from his ankle to his ear. It was said Pete slid on the sidewalk a distance equal to the length of a 1956 Ford station wagon. It was an evil wipe out, and it was a long time before anyone tried to ride upper Mariposa again, but by then skateboards were wider and thinner and longer and fitted with smooth rubber wheels and stable wheel bearings, and Pete was already an old-timer.

Joe at the top of an evil wave. Well, an evil photo, anyway.

Joe at the top of an evil wave. Well, an evil photo, anyway.

Follow Up: n+1 has put the Alice Gregory Mavericks piece on-line, 9 Oct 13.

Where the Palace of Wisdom is Loaded with Vice

John Lancaster’s review of The Road of Excess, Marcus Boon’s book on writing under the influence, appeared in the January 6, 2003 New Yorker, and the review provides an effective, short introduction into drug use in writing as well as the journalistic impulse to too easily categorize, stereotype, and generalize. Associating addictions with occupations simply creates a stereotype. It’s probably true to say that alcoholism travels promiscuously in sales, but this doesn’t mean that alcohol is notably absent from other occupations, nor that all who work in sales are alcoholics, so what does the adage gain us in understanding either addiction or sales? Addictions transcend occupations; we find them everywhere. We may be living in the Age of Drugs, since we also live in the Age of Anxiety. Lancaster points out that most of the drugs we associate with addictions are late 19th or 20th century inventions. But while drugs addict, not all addictions are to drugs. Boon’s title comes from William Blake’s “The Proverbs of Hell,” found in Blake’s long poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The complete line is “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” But Blake wasn’t talking about drugs. He was talking about contraries. When Salvador Dali was asked if he painted while on drugs, as if that might explain surrealism, he responded, no; and asked in reply, “Why should I take the drug; I am the drug.”

Lancaster attempts to level the hyperbole, claiming that beyond the classic cases frequently referenced, attempts to associate drugs with writing usually miss the train we’re actually on. Then, he adds a final paragraph, which unfortunately drags jazz and drugs into his discussion, to support his anti-climactic claim that drug use has, after all, influenced the arts, particularly popular music. “The story of dope-fiend writers is interesting, but the history of dope-fiend jazz musicians is the history of jazz,” Lancaster says. Dope is not the history of jazz, any more than alcohol is the history of any occupation. Drugs have seeped into all socio-economic demographics of our society. Should we say that steroid use is the history of baseball? In the end, the average writer is no different from the average carpenter, who rises early and starts pounding nails, not beers, while the writer is pounding keys. Of interest with regard to Lancaster’s review are the letters found in the January 27 New Yorker “Mail,” Sue Mingus emphatically insisting that her husband, the famous jazz bassist Charles Mingus, listed by Lancaster as an addict, “was not a heroin addict,” and she eloquently argues that Lancaster “perpetuates myths and clichés and reveals little of the nature of creativity.” Another reader wrote to deflate Lancaster’s reference that listening to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue approximates the heroin experience. The reader claimed that the Kind of Blue album came after Miles’s addictions, seemingly a question of fact; but, in any case, the year we saw Mark McQuire and Jose Canseco hit back to back homers in the King Dome – did that approximate for the fan what it’s like to be on steroids?

As pervasive then as drug use, are the associations we make about its use, and so we were not surprised to hear JazzWax weighing in on jazz and popular music drug use in yesterday’s Sunday Wax Bits. Keith Richards’s recent memoir, Life, provides a fresh example of the JazzWax point that popular music’s business plan has always promoted the glamorization of drugs. But Lancaster also pointed out that writing that is about drugs is usually best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is wrapped in humor. We’re not sure we can take Richards’s entire memoir seriously, for it’s a memoir meant to sell a life, and if the story of popular music is about something other than popular music, it’s about an addiction not to drugs, but to money, which reveals itself in exploitation and adulteration, a watering down of goods and needs to wants and consumptions.

When Reading Was Everything

Alfred Kazin’s Writing Was Everything is about 20th century US reading. The book could have been titled Reading Was Everything. It’s the text of Kazin’s 1994 Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard. There are four sections, a short prologue, “All Critics Are Mortal,” and three chapters: “Before the War,” “During the War,” and “After the War.” The War is WW II. But it seems we’re always somewhere in this context, before a war, during a war, or after a war. For my generation the during chapter would be Vietnam, and while there have been more recent wars, many of us still seem stuck in the after of that one. Kazin doesn’t even mention Vietnam; for him there was only one war. This doesn’t matter; for all wars are the same, and we are all always before, during, and after one.

Kazin places all relevant writing in a cultural context of social and political forces; the greatest forces for his generation were socialism and totalitarianism. The was in the title is informing; it establishes the value of literature as remembering. Writing is looking back, going home again. Kazin began his writing career during the depression as an independent book reviewer, and he became a professional critic, but Writing Was Everything opens and closes on the critical note that literary criticism is not literature. For it’s literature that was everything, and Kazin deplores today’s “ideologues [who] ignore the imponderables of existence that are still with us after all the work of science, technology, analytic philosophy, psychology, deconstruction, or linguistics, after all the political, racial, and sexual debate so hot in the academy.” For Kazin, literature is the “value we can give to our experience.” Thus he deplores that today’s “academy is so preoccupied with status that it can proclaim literature to be only a branch of criticism, just another ‘discourse’.”

After the war, Kazin discovers Milosz, who invokes Blake’s Ulro: “What is the price of Experience? Do men buy it for a song? / Or wisdom for a dance in the street? / No, it is bought with the price / Of all that a man hath: his house, his wife, his children.” I thought, “this is Job,” and a few pages later we do find Job: “Poetry to him [Milosz] is profoundly a recall, not a mere presentation of lived experience. It resembles what he calls ‘the cries of Job,’ not our endless defenses and explorations of the ego.” When everyone is down, as in the case of Job, when everyone is on trial, as in the case of Kafka, when everyone is hungry, beat, and destitute, as in the case of Simone Weil, an important voice for both Milosz and Kazin, “…when an entire community is stricken…poetry [becomes] as essential as bread.” Milosz claimed not to understand the spirit that prompted his poetry, and therefore, in his own teaching, he “limited [himself] to the history of literature, trying to avoid poetics.” Kazin, in Writing Was Everything, does essentially just that, sticks to the history of the writing, believing that “what gets us closer to a work of art is not instruction but another work of art.” Each writer Kazin introduces is introduced by another writer, until the reader has met them all, albeit briefly (the book is only 152 pages), and understands that their writing is a dialog. There are writers missing from Kazin’s discussion (Beckett, for example, for whom writing really was everything, but Kazin may have had difficulty figuring out what to do with Beckett’s seeming absence of cultural or political context), but I was happily surprised at the space given Flannery O’Connor and Simon Weil, who are among the many writers Kazin talks about that he knew personally.

Writing Was Everything is one of the books I picked up at the Multnomah County Library book sale a month or so ago, in perfect shape, hard back with dust jacket intact, for $1. I’m slowly working my way through the pile of books I picked up at the sale.

Where Listening Gives Rise to Silence and Fizzles

There lived in our neighborhood some time ago a locally famous pianist who enjoyed great demand for piano lessons from parents for their children. The demand was such that a prospective student had to interview with the teacher. One of the interview “questions” involved listening to chords: the child identified a chord as “happy” or “sad.” Children unable to pass this interview question eliminated themselves from consideration. It’s been some time since I’ve talked to the pianist, but I’ve wondered from time to time what emotion a Bm7b5 (B minor 7 flat 5) might equate to, or an Eb7b9 (E flat 7 flat 9, as an inside chord, without the 5th, on the guitar).

How one distinguishes sounds, as in the experiment discussed over at Language Log, might explain musical preferences. Listeners who prefer a country western song, such as Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (and its many covers), over a short piece by John Cage, might not hear sounds the same way the Cage fan distinguishes sounds, for “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees” (Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”) – as both Williams and Cage would probably agree.

The Language Log listening experiment might also explain reading preferences, why some readers, for example, prefer Charles Dickens to Samuel Beckett (Dickens writes in minor keys, invoking pathos and bathos and every other kind of oath, Beckett in jovial major modes with flurries of flats falling like ash in downward spiraling scales).

Emergence might be at work here, too (the entire piece can’t be predicted by any one of its chords), or simply that our ears sometimes grow tired or lazy, as do our tongues and our eyes. This is what Cage explored in Silence, and what Beckett meant by Fizzles.

The Sick Roses of Suburbia and the Epiphany of a Picture

I knew the Oregonian “Metro” columnist Steve Duin lives not in Portland but Lake Oswego, but was unaware the writer from this banana belt suburb, protected from Portland’s East Winds, would feel protected from precinct prowling. I enjoy his columns, something I’ll miss when newspapers disappear, for the daily columnist is today’s “…voice of the Bard!” as Blake said, “Who Present, Past, & Future, sees.” Alas, “The invisible worm That flies in the night…Has found out thy bed Of crimson joy….” Duin’s Epiphany-day article is about his epiphany-like experience being pulled over without probable cause in LO on Christmas night after getting a late call from his Christmas-cheery, twenty-something daughter, who needed a ride home. 

I lived for a time years ago in LO, and it didn’t take me long to achieve a speeding ticket (30 in a 25; my VDub bug so proud), for which I was sentenced by the infamous LO Cookie Judge, dispensing justice from behind a folding table in the LO fire station lunch room, to play guitar for several hours at the Oregon Rehabilitation Institute, a sentence I cheerfully complied with, brushing up on a few Bob Dylan songs, and enjoying a successful gig, even if the patients, my audience, did sportingly encourage me not to quit my day job.

I was reminded too, reading Duin, of the summer, student job I once had as an employee of the City of El Segundo, washing police cars. I arrived at the police station on Saturday mornings, grabbed the keys to a squad car, and drove it to the city yard (less than a mile), where there was a wash rack in the motor pool. The motor pool was managed by a few mechanics who sat around smoking and listening to country oldies on the radio while I washed the police cars. At the time, I wore long, curly-wild hair, and dressed without much prepense in beat clothes suggesting a mashed hippie-surfer profile. The double takes from the good ES citizens who happened to see me driving one of their city’s squad cars – he’s either under-cover or the revolution is afoot. Then one of the lieutenants grew uncomfortable with the arrangement that gave me such liberal access to station, keys, and street and issued a directive that henceforth if any cop wanted his car washed he had to drive it himself to the rack where I would be waiting with hose, soap, and rags.

We all have a particular picture of ourselves, seldom the same picture others have of us. We often dress our pictures up, while others dress them down. The Cookie Judge was costing LO money, sentencing the citizens of the poverty-sheltered suburb to bake cookies for old folks or otherwise share their talents with their less fortunate neighbors. The annoyance was the sentence, and the judge must have irked a few of the wrong LO pictures, who would have preferred simply paying a fine. Our pictures provoke a wide variety of responses, from the childish and churlish, to the paranoid and pathological. In the end, they are merely pictures, and pictures tell no stories: pictures are wordless and require interpretation, and interpretation requires imagination, and imagination needs experience to avoid becoming purely childish and churlish, and experience wants wisdom to avoid becoming paranoid and psychotic. Then the picture becomes epiphany.

(Quotes in para. 1 from “Introduction” and “The Sick Rose,” from William Blake’s Songs of Experience, 1789-1794)