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Remember, your laundry can wait. The future won't.
Searching for a Heartbeat in Poetry & Music
Remember, your laundry can wait. The future won't.
How media bias works:
Here is Barbara West (WFTV) interviewing senator John McCain. Apologies for the pop up comments. This was the only copy I could find on YouTube.
Here is Barbara West (WFTV) interviewing senator Joe Biden
Here’s a split screen comparison of the two interviews. Again, apologies for the editorializing by the person who posted it on YouTube. I think the videos speak for themselves how some people in the media (I'm sure there are other examples, not just from a conservative) decide to interview politicians. At the very least, this does speak to this whole "mainstream media" argument. Who is this mainstream media? People on FOX News often will speak of this "mainstream media" as something "other" and biased against conservatives, while at the same time advertising themselves as the most watched news source in America. I really don't get it.
Sarah Maguire writes in the Guardian in Britain about poetry:
“I defy you to find a Palestinian who can't recite one of Mahmoud Darwish’s poems. In August, when this incomparable poet died, the whole of Palestine, and much of the Arabic-speaking world, came to a halt. Stricken with grief, no one could talk about anything else for days.”
And then goes on to talk about bringing some poets from countries that really cherish their poets, to Britain:
“We’re bringing them here not only for the obvious pleasure they give, but also because I hope that translating their poetry into English will go some way to injecting something of their energy into British verse. Poetry in this country is our favourite minority artform, largely greeted with bafflement, often with dismay. And yet we live alongside people for whom poetry is a central, essential passion. My hope is that by attempting to make their poems at home in our language, we can also translate a little of their enthusiasm.”
And so she leads us to this question:
“If we could read the poets that move huge audiences elsewhere in the world, would it wake up our own?”
The answer is NO. It’s not the poetry itself that creates the interest in the poetry in other countries. It’s the way the culture reads the poetry. It’s how they associate with it. Britain, and now I’m going to make the leap to a culture I know much better and include America, has a huge diversity of poetry. It’s not the fault of something in the poetry itself that is the problem. It’s what happens in the culture.
My first point, that it’s not the fault of the poems themselves, is that there are over 3,000 books of poetry published in America ever year. Seriously, with that kind of production, it can’t possibly all be unworthy of moving people. The problem is this: with 3,000 books of poetry published every year, how much of it have you noticed? What I mean is, how much have you seen mentioned in newspapers or magazines or on TV? Have you seen any at Wal Mart?
I hold the position that if poetry were pushed as hard as other books are pushed, with inexpensive editions in check out lines, and talked about on general television shows and in general magazines, some poetry would find an audience nearly as large as fiction. And likewise, I feel that if we treated pop music and pop fiction the way we treat poetry in our culture, then it’s audience would go poof.
Why do I think this? Well, first, since it will never happen, I have the comfort of never being proved wrong. But secondly, poetry has the potential of having that same sort of quick interest and quick conclusion that songs have. You don’t need the kind of long-term involvement to read poetry that you need to complete a novel. But people don’t like to have to bring that hard focus to bear suddenly to puzzle through a poem, one might counter. I think that’s wrong. Whenever I see someone on an airplane playing SUDOKU, I am reminded that we like to be challenged. We’re just not allowing ourselves to bring poetry onto our list of available entertainment options. Why is this?
First off, I blame the No Child Left Behind philosophy of American education. The idea that all things that are important in learning and teaching are those things that can be assessed in the short-term by objective tests. We, as a culture, bring everything that we say we value down to a test score. I’ve seen this play out for years as I visit schools (and now that I have children I’m watching it even closer). When I meet kindergarten students, they are nothing but open imagination. Everything possible is real. We can say it’s because they’re just coming into language and just figuring out how to pair language with experience. OK. And that we need to teach them to transition into literate and functional citizens. I agree. But do we always need to have them color within the lines? We have all sorts of clichés aimed at helping us think larger, to think, forgive me for saying it, outside the box. We know, and people who get paid a lot of money to sit and think keep telling us, that to compete globally, we need to do this thing they’ve termed “thinking outside the box.”
I suggest that if we really believed that, we’d change something about the way we put thinking inside the box to begin with. When does it happen? How does thinking get in that box?
Poetry is a good example. When I bring poetry to children, especially when I bring real poetry, not children’s verse, but adult poetry (granted, poetry that is age-appropriate for language and image) to children, I’m greeted with pleasure and enthusiasm.
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” for example. Read that first stanza to children, evocatively, and with enthusiasm. They will enjoy it. You can even talk about it with them. It will be something for them to participate with. And then you can turn them over to a blank page, and they’ll write amazing things about seeing the world in thirteen different ways. At that point in their lives, they love poetry. They are on the road to participate in a culture that values art.
And then the philosophy behind No Child Left Behind takes over. It all becomes something to be correct or incorrect about. It’s no longer something to participate with. So that last week I visited a High School college prep class and asked them what they would think if I handed out “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” What would their reaction be? You can guess, can’t you? Yes? One said to me that he would think, “what’s the assignment going to be?”
The thinking, the experiencing of thought that was, just a few years earlier, just all over the place for students, has now been firmly sealed into its little box, thank you very much. We’ve taken art, the most human of our expressions, the expression of our inner, hopeless and beautiful and mysterious and glorious selves, and we’ve made it into an assignment. I don’t have a solution. I’m not an educational theorist, but I’ve seen the way we suck creativity and imagination out of ourselves in the name of education.
There simply has to be a better way.
I Looked Out the Door So the Door’s a Window
The form of knowing. The forms knowing takes. All forms of knowing bring forth a knowing available to that form. Science brings forth scientific knowing—you can not ask science to answer the question of what is a moral stance. That is a knowing in philosophical or religious formations. Likewise art has a form of knowing which is different form non-art forms of knowing. Football is also a form of knowing. The decision we make is how to value these various forms of knowing. I will not try to come up with a hierarchy, one can do that for oneself. But what I will stress is that what is known through art is of some importance, and finding something in art, or specifically, poetry, is worth your time. Go buy a book. Own it and live with it. Somewhere in all the ways you know the world.
In art, the forms of knowing are always getting stale, becoming stock forms within genres, and must be continually questioned, not just as they appear in the genres, themselves, but as they appear in all language acts. Remember, it’s the telling of stories that gave us the fundamental plots that we now place experience into—it’s dangerous to think of our own experiences as “stories” then, as “stories” are an idea that is placed over experience. In much that same way, be must continually be aware of the way we are represented in language, as language does as much to conceal as to reveal. This idea of representation, of how we are to be shown to each other is at the least as much a mask as it is a revelation of community.
The art I like seems to me aware, on the subject level, of these issues. And I read it (in poetry) as a way to push back against the easy formulas of representation. I feel it is our duty to continually push back against representation, as representation is, of course, a myth. Words can be tinted away from simply “referring to” and toward “enacting.” Yes words refer. Yes words represent. That is part of the nature of words. But words also allow tonal and cognitive shadings that possibly let one out from under the essentializing traps that representation brings with it.
But how does one push back against representation? What might this look like? On the one hand, for example, a poet like Mary Jo Bang pushes back against the voice-over of the elegy in Elegy. Lyn Hejinian pushes back dramatically against autobiography in My Life. John Ashbery pushes back against lyric meditation, to name a few of my favorites. But this doesn’t have to be a move only for “experimental” poets. As “experimental” is just another voiced-over title that allows one easy entry into dismissal or acceptance of a poet. Allen Ginsberg (once considered experimental in his own right) pushed back. Adrienne Rich pushed back. One can claim all manner of voices, but one must also find the negative side. The adversary that is often very close at hand. And how long does one’s pushing back hold? How long can Michael Palmer (one of my favorite poets) push back against the crisis of representation, for instance, until it’s no longer a crisis? That’s how the age shifts into the next age, isn’t it? Or, in other words, don’t let your antique show. Or, the poet starts off against some thinking, by saying, add this to the possible to say. And then it’s added. So what does the poet do now? It’s almost like losing one’s job and needing to be retrained. It was controversial for Robert Bly and James Wright to come out with Silence of the Snowy Fields and The Branch Will Not Break . . . but now, forty or so years later, reading them, it’s not nearly so controversial.
So how about desiring, when writing, when reading, rather than an experience of representation, an experience of presentation? There are shades of difference here, and the differences sound subtle, but the products, the poems, written out of these differing philosophies (representation vs. presentation) are tremendous. Unless we actively push back against representation, against the easy posturing of accepted/acceptable ways of saying and of things to say, representation will delude us into a false “acceptance” of a laid-over, a voice-over narrative of the way things are. It becomes an agreement with the political overlay. In some ways it can be as bald as accepting the terms of the conversation regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, perhaps, or, less politically, the terms of how one should regard a poem. Of how one should read a poem. And what one should hope for when reading a poem.
It’s long been a tactic of debate to own the power of naming, for when one owns the terms of the debate, one is that much closer to getting what one wants from the debate. One can see it operating in politics all the time, for instance, in watching how PRO-choice vies with PRO-life in the naming of who is the most PRO… but the same thing happens slowly in the way things are taught, as an acceptance of the methods of the discourse around a subject privileges some way of saying, which in turn privileges the path to a point, and finally the type of point one comes to. And example of this might be the way we teach poetry in schools. We teach (in the upper grades—and this is an important point that I will return to), most usually, a form of close reading, where the student is to come back at a poem with a prose rendering of the poem’s argument and point, with care given to the denotative and connotative possibilities of the poem’s language. It’s a way to a poem through the logos. It shows that we’re clever readers and that we have a point to what we’re doing. But but but, I want to say, if this is all we’re doing when reading a poem, it’s no wonder people aren’t interested in reading poetry. This doesn’t sound like something I’d like to spend a great deal of my time on. And remember, how one is brought to something, poetry say, is always going to influence one’s further relationship with that thing.
And I want you to know that I’m not railing against close reading. Close reading is a wonderful skill, as long as we remember that a poem is an art object and not an argument. What is the meaning of architecture? What is the meaning of a painting? We have no problem enjoying a painting for its presentation. What is the meaning of popular music? What is the meaning of jazz? What is the meaning of Classical music? How it is. How our experience of it is. So why all the hard work to read a poem? Why use words like “Difficult Poems” as descriptions of a type of poetry? Really? How many people does that excite to get involved with reading poetry?
SUDOKU can be easy, intermediate, or difficult. Football, if you choose to make it so, can be difficult. Likewise poetry. Yes, I just said as in football, likewise poetry. And I’m not kidding.
At the periphery: space and figures. Space and question.
Real space: To stand bewildered before the work of art as “the real” is shifted to the notion of a field.
Popular music has done to poetry what photography has done to paintings. We sing along with the weirdest combinations of words and ideas, and then we complain that our poets aren’t accessible? Seriously, one should query this idea of “difficulty.” What is Bob Dylan talking about (most of the time)? It’s what movies have done to stories (sure, the movie doesn’t make any sense, but it’s fun, right? Memento. Really?). What technology always does to what was the technology before. The art produced by the new technology has a freedom that we don’t extend to the old, for some odd reason. The possible to do always forms the possible to say. But I’m overstating it. Apologies. And really now, with ebooks, what will be the future of textbooks? Is it depressing? I don’t know. It will be a bad end for some things, and a rebirth for others. The way the Internet has occasioned a rebirth for poetry. Poems themselves, if not books. And what is the impact of blogs?
Think of meaning in poetry as magnetic. As an attractive force. So that it is less “bound” to a set of interpretations than it is invisibly waiting for anything with a certain other make-up to wander into its field. So the poem doesn’t reveal in the exact way to all, but depends to some degree upon what passes by. Meaning is magnetic. I like that conceptualization. Rather than “welded” to one thing. I feel I live much of my life in that world, how correspondences we find in everyday life have to mostly be guessed at. In this way one can say the play of poetry is an important way to exercise one’s ability to forge correspondences, to find patterns in life. So maybe we’re back to a Scrabble or Sudoku understanding of poetry. Well, maybe, but for the fact that poetry is unwinnable, while also bringing us back, hopefully, into a primary relationship with the real. Which is more a HOW poetry means rather than a WHAT poetry means. I’ve never been very good on what poetry means, outside of a participation in a primary relationship with the real. Or something equally scary and abstract sounding: the house about the house.
I climbed through the window so the window’s a door: on “the contemporary” in poetry
I’m preparing a talk on several subjects around poetry, so I thought I might start tossing some notes up on the blog to see if anyone has anything to add or argue or suggest. The notes are sketchy.
Does art “achieve”? That’s an open question for me. If it does, I would think the “achievement” would be somehow explainable. But yet, I see some things appear in art and I feel something important has just happened. I can feel it. Perhaps “achievement” is the incorrect word for how art adds to our experience of the world. One can talk of an athlete achieving something. Going faster. Higher. Just plain better. But in art this is a very different notion. Art is not like science, it does not build upon what came before and extend the reach, but yet it does. Art does build upon what went before to extend the possible to say, to do. So art does evolve, as science does, but not in the way one might term “progress.” As in the notion of one progressing toward a goal of landing someone on the moon or curing a disease. But more in the way of “progress” using the notion of “tour.” As in, I progressed across the field. Shakespeare is not Newton.
Styles change and notions change. And all books are exiles. Because words fail us we continue. Our silence in brackets. Within the possibility of reference. Because all questions rhyme.
Why do some people say poets write for other poets? What is in the writing itself that calls out for a poetry-writing readership? Poems that mention poems? They are really not that common. And even if so, might not the same thing be said of popular songs and novels “about” songs or novels? A big hit like Coldplay’s song “yellow” is about writing a song called “yellow.” So where specifically is the distrust in people, and where is it directed, when they say poetry is only read by other poets? Who is it condemning? Who is being blamed?
Doing what everyone else does. Things get in the air and become a cultural gripe. People hear others say something and decide to wear that opinion themselves. Sarah Palin, when asked what supreme court decisions she disagrees with, couldn’t name one other than Roe V. Wade, a nearly 40-year-old decision. In certain circles it’s fashionable to dislike the Supreme Court, for better or worse. It’s also fashionable, if you’re a conservative, to dislike the French. These days, it’s the only time I hear about France. Most recently with the 700 billion dollar Wall Street “bailout” package. Some who opposed it said that if we passed it, we would be like France. As if France was one thing. As if the Supreme Court was one thing. Doing what everyone else does. And everything is a history lesson. Times are neither peaceful nor turbulent for everyone.
Someone once said (where and when I haven’t a clue) that poets write for other poets, and suddenly that’s what people think we do. And the absurdity of the idea isn’t interrogated. As if Ted Kooser and Ron Silliman were one thing. Right?
The poetry that I admire is often specifically targeted with comments such as that. Call it poetry of the imagined world, maybe. So what is the goal of this poetry then? I think it’s absurd to say that poetry is written only for poets. When writing, how could/ would one imagine the needs of such an audience. I believe that if poets constitute the main audience for poetry, is says less about why or how that poetry is being produced, and more about how the culture in general talks about poetry.
What then is the goal for poetry these days? The poetry I like? I always feel conned, or that someone is trying to con me, when I encounter art that pretends it’s not art. Poetry that calls itself “conversation” or some other world. Poetry that places its subject as some real or imagined autobiography or biography that foregrounds the “communication” of the social. I can kind of stand it when the “story” is remarkable or astounding or weird, or on some fascinating subject—like a doctor writing, for instance—but when it’s just some day held up, starting with something like “my mother always…”, you know? It just seems like all my energy for reading evaporates. I just think to myself that this is going to go to really predictable places. How different the poetry on topics by poets like Rae Armantrout or Mary Jo Bang. They are aware of the myth of symmetry. Of the fragile myth of narrative and story.
I’ve read this a number of places (Michael Palmer & Reginald Shepherd both write of it) and I’ve said it for many years myself, as many of us have, that what people seem fairly ready and willing to admire in paintings—disjunction of image, dislocated perspectives, gestures rather than depictions—in poetry, leaves them irritated or angry even. Know what I mean?
David Byrne speaks of a similar thing about the dancers on his recent tour:
“. . . our audiences, who are pretty much universally loving the dance elements, would probably, most of them, never go to see a contemporary dance performance if it was in town. We agreed that somehow this context removes any sense of pretension and fear from the viewer. There is none of the intellectual questioning and pondering by the audience that often occurs at a dance or at a performance context. No one is asking, “What does this mean? Do I get it? Do I like it? Is this over my head?”
“Somehow mixed with popular music, these elements in the show bypass those critical and questioning centers and people receive them as part and parcel of the total performance. If they are enjoying it, then it must be OK. Lily suggests that dance, often marginalized but now increasingly so, needs to insert itself into other places and join with other media, as this show does in its own way. She mentioned some places dance might fit: fashion shows (which is a great idea to make those events a little more acknowledged as performance); film; fine art; and elsewhere.”
Of course we know it already, but Wallace Stevens reminds us that “it is life that one is trying to get at in poetry.” It must be a life, a way of life, that poetry gets at better than other things do, or there is no use. In much the way that painting “gets at” something. What then is this something and how can we mark its value in a culture that seems to do everything it can to avoid such things as poetry. So the culture convinces us to approach poetry as if it were an opportunity for a fill-in-the-blank test. Something we can assess. Something for No Child Left Behind. But some other way of talking about poetry, some more interesting experience of poetry that might not kill the long-term relationship with poetry that would yield real difference to people, well, that would seem to be in everyone’s best interest. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to convince people to be just as determined in the search through a poem for something as they must also be that they’ll not find it—because the search is the goal—finding something would destroy the real importance, the importance of the things along the way that keep unfolding. Poetry, art, is not a destination but a vista, granting that that, in its way, is a destination.
If we set out on a path of study that says Ashbery is difficult, then we will find a difficult Ashbery to study. But if we’re not on a path of study? What if we rename the path? What if it is a path of experiencing? What if we are to conceptualize it as a path of noticing things, along with a genial Ashbery? If we’re taught that reading poetry leads one to an answer, well, there you are.
The new doesn’t “make sense” it enacts sensibility. “Making sense” is a processing the new sits before. By the time one can see it to say it makes sense, it’s gone, and they’re looking behind themselves. We turn back to see only historical markers down the trail, encircled by birds.
Or maybe I just want to know who’s in control so I can be properly oppositional.
Here’s a poem from a previous October that rhymes with how I’m feeling looking out my window at the street this month. Here’s to that dog, that ever present dog, the one that barks. The one who looks so like us.
Untitled (October 2002)
Eva Braun advised me in a dream
to always be kind to dogs.
So I gazed at the world
with fresh eyes, the rust
on the apple, the sliding sun,
our hard-won freedoms here at home.
Then a famous physicist proudly proclaimed
that this century would be no less
exciting than the last—
not a dream. So I set a match
to my Obras Completas, all thirteen pages,
that sad house of paper,
and let loose the finch from its cage.
Next a woman in red, not undressing, said,
Stop playing the flaming fool.
But how exactly is that done?
So I summoned my dog,
name of Bob, gnarly dog,
tossed him a glabrous bone,
told him he was not alone.
Today is make a poem day. There’s a bit of, well, something going on out there with a document called Issue #1. Go to Ron Silliman’s blog and find out all about it if you want. But the most interesting thing to me about it (except for the silliness of my name being included – how funny), is how some people were able to construct nearly 4,000 poems lickity split. Even bad poems have to be constructed, right? Nah, that’s SOOOOO last century.
I found out through Noah Eli Gordon’s comment that you can do it much, much easier. So today, go here:
Choose the directed poetics page. And you can have some fun.
The whole thing takes maybe a minute. Maybe two.
So here’s my poem.
The ugly births
Ugly and beautiful
Ugly and beautiful
Uglier than a birth
Uglier than a nascency
Uglier than a nascence
A sort of birth
A kind of birth
A kind of nativity
A kind of nascency
Ugly as a birth and beautiful as a birth
Ugly as a nativity and beautiful as a birth
Ugly as a birth, beautiful as a nascence
Ugly as a birth and beautiful as a nascency
Ugly as a nascency, beautiful as a birth
Ron Silliman writes:
“. . . it was clear that giving it your all, writing exactly what you thought needed to be written, regardless of whether it looked comfortably familiar or not, was the only way to go. Anything less really was just too boring, too timid. Why even bother?”
And it gets me to thinking how similar are the impulses that get us all into writing, and why we’re often so crabby. Is it true? Do we all basically agree with Silliman’s initial impulse? And how funny, then, to agree, as the forms of our agreement take such radically different, and contradictory, paths. So that what Silliman found boring, others found liberating. And the path of Silliman’s investigation, others find boring (but probably not timid).
How interesting it all is, as I’m thinking again about Charles Wright’s introduction to the current BAP, and his assertion that very few good poems are being written today, and that he’s not finding the thrill in recent poetry that he found in Berryman and Roethke, etc. And then Bill Knott commenting the other day on my blog to say that while he doesn’t like Charles Wright’s poetry, he does agree with his assessment of contemporary poetry, about which Steven Schroeder commented that such an assertion possibly says less about the age we’re in that the age of the poets making the assessment.
(Addendum: Bill Knott [see comments below] has written in to say that I'm misquoting him. I hate misquoting people, and did so unintentionally, so here is the part of his comment that I was thinking about, now as a direct quote:
"Schroeder's right: it's his [Wright's] age, which is my age too—— /// I don't like Wright's poetry, as I've declared many times on my blog, but I agree with his general sentiments here [though the cuisinart metaphor is for desperation]
. . .it's a generational difference gap, of course . . . your impatience with his attitude is the same as Wright's impatience 30-40 years ago with Allen Tate et al . . .")
But but but, I want to keep saying, all ages have a very high percentage of poetry that doesn’t last. Is there really something about our time that is somehow worse? Or less sympathetic?
I always get a sense of dread when I meet someone for the first time, someone who doesn’t read poetry, and they want to connect, so they say something like, “I do like that one poet, what’s his name again? Oh yes, Billy Collins.” And I have to decide how to respond. I don’t want to hurt their feelings by saying what I think of Collins’ work (boring and timid might suit), after all, they’re just trying to connect, to be nice. But I’m frustrated. I feel bad. I think to myself that the reason they like Billy Collins’ work is that he is the contemporary poet who has been sanctioned and given to them. Where and how, I haven’t a clue. Maybe on Prairie Home Companion or something?
I think of how much I’m moved by John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Martha Ronk, Mary Jo Bang, Michael Palmer, Charles Simic, Charles Wright, Mark Strand, and so many others (and younger poets like Kevin Prufer, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Zachary Schomburg, G.C. Waldrep, and on, seriously, it’s a long list), in ways as important to me as my first experiences of Berryman, cummings, Stevens, etc. Of course, I'm not trying to say a young poet, with only one or two books out, is "the same as" Wallace Stevens. I'm talking about my experience of discovery.
Maybe what I’m really asserting here is that artists confuse taste with value. Or, to put it a different way: our personal taste clogs up the gears of being able to asses the state of the art. I haven’t yet gotten to the point where my ability to have that first sense of discovery blunted by either time or inclination (or perhaps Wright is correct, as I get the impression from his comments about the poetry he's finding that he feels perhaps we’re living in a lesser time after a great time, and we’re so much a part of it we can’t tell the difference [I hope and trust that’s not the case, by the way]).
And yet, isn’t that very thing the reason we start writing in the first place? It was for Silliman, above. And for me as well. And for all of us. To write what we need to write. To not be boring. To not be timid. I started writing out of that explosive experience of something new there on the page. Something primary. And then (and this is what I think Silliman also means), when I first started publishing, and writing after that initial joy of language, I found myself writing away from, and in the face of, writing I thought was being highly praised when it shouldn’t be, while poetry I thought wonderful, was being improperly discounted. Specifically, I wanted to write against the poetry of Philip Levine, Rita Dove, and later, Billy Collins, and on.
So, is that also the case with all of us? And then another question for you: what got you started writing? What has kept you going? Do you write against other forms of writing?
The great poems of
our elders in many
tongues we struggled
to comprehend who
are now content with
and profound you
in the night your
breath your body
orbit of time and
the moment you
Hesper a dark circle
of fertility so
bloodthirsty for us
you in the world
the night breathing
asleep and alive.