I am currently reading Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic, a conceptual poetry project consisting of twenty-four hours of traffic reports from New York’s 1010 WINS (available online in its entirety here), and am stunned to find myself moved nearly to tears. Goldsmith, who claims that his transcription projects make him “the most boring writer that has ever lived,” is not thought of as a particularly moving writer, and I was certainly not expecting to react this way. But as soon as I opened the book I was floored; I was transported Proust-style right back into the kitchen of the house where I grew up in suburban New Jersey:
12:01 Well, in conjunction with the big holiday weekend, we start out with the Hudson River horror show right now. Big delays in the Holland Tunnel either way with roadwork, only one lane will be getting by. You’re talking about, at least, twenty to thirty minutes worth of traffic either way, possibly even more than that. Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town. Lower level closed, upper level all you get. Then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up: West Side Highway from the 150’s, the Major Deegan, the Bronx approaches and the Harlem River Drive are all a disaster, the Harlem River Drive could take you an hour, no direct access to the GW Bridge with roadwork. And right now across the East River 59th Street Bridge, you’ve gotta steer clear of that one. Midtown Tunnel, Triboro Bridge, they remain in better shape. Still very slow on the eastbound Southern State Parkway here at the area of the, uh, Meadowbrook there’s a, uh, stalled car there blocking a lane and traffic very slow.
Just about every weekday morning of my life between ages six and eighteen, I listened to traffic reports exactly like this one sputtering out of my father’s battery-powered radio. And I do mean exactly: it was 1010 WINS that he had on every morning, with traffic updates every ten minutes from Pete Tauriello, who is evidently still doing the traffic reports that Goldsmith is transcribing. (Actually, now that I think about it, there was definitely a period where my dad listened to WNEW’s Bloomberg Radio instead — another AM news channel financed, of course, by the man who would eventually become mayor of New York.) But in any case, Goldsmith’s block of text activated neurons I didn’t even remember I had, and it occurred to me that his work is rarely considered in terms of the specific times, places, and communities that it evokes. Critics tend to be concerned with what it means to copy something so banal word-for-word — to be concerned, that is, with the theoretical — and miss that perhaps what he’s trying to get at is the banal itself, rather than the philosophy that leads him to reproduce the banal.
My dad listened to that little battery-powered radio while shaving, and then would bring it with him into the kitchen to make breakfast for himself, me, and my brother. My mother didn’t really eat breakfast; she seemed to subsist on instant coffee and diet Pepsi until noon. When I was very young, I would hang around in the bathroom watching my dad shave and then follow him and the radio out to the kitchen. When I was older, I would endeavor to wake up as late as possible, but I’d still find myself downstairs in the kitchen shoveling cereal or Pop Tarts into my mouth in the cold dark morning while the radio chattered away. This was a decidedly pre-internet age; my dad listened to AM radio every morning so he could get the news efficiently, which I now suddenly recognize as an antiquated practice. I doubt he listens to that radio at all anymore, now that he has an iPhone. Stations like 1010 WINS are on a very short loop — the traffic and weather recur every ten minutes (and each time are just the slightest bit different, as conditions progress) and the material between these reports varies a bit more — sometimes you’ll get financial news, sometimes political news, etc — but even so, you don’t have to listen to the radio for more than twenty or thirty minutes before you start hearing the same stories repeated exactly. So it was always a little bit of a mystery to me why my father let the radio accompany him through his whole morning ritual — he, and I by extension especially when I was young and following him around, would be subjected to not just repeated-with-a-difference content like the traffic, but actually verbatim repeated content.
In addition to being repetitive, a lot of the news on the radio didn’t really affect my dad very much, and it certainly didn’t affect me. My parents had some investments, so I guess the financial news was sort of important, and it’s also how I learned about the stock market myself. (“Dad, what’s a ‘bear market’?”) The traffic reports that came on every ten minutes meant nothing to anybody in my family, since both of my parents had “commutes” that were less than ten minutes long. But listening to the traffic reports every morning taught me a fair amount about local geography — the BQE, the Major Deegan, the Verrazano — these names were burned into my brain before they even really meant anything, and years later when I learned to drive and started navigating the highways myself, I found myself having little a-ha moments every time I crossed a bridge in real life that I had previously only known from Pete Tauriello’s traffic reports.
Now that I think about it, the reason the traffic reports are so burned into my brain is that the one thing I personally was always interested in was the weather report, and these radio stations of course do “traffic and weather together” — so when you started to hear the traffic report, you’d hush everybody up so you could catch the weather. The thing about these news stations is that they operate at a blinding pace — everybody is always speaking very quickly so they can cram as much information as possible into their minute-long slot. The rhythm and diction of the traffic reports that Goldsmith transcribes are at least as evocative for me as the names of the tunnels and bridges. Some phrases the announcer seemed to have by rote — “stalled car blocking a lane,” “only one lane getting by” — these we’d hear several times a morning. “Jackknifed tractor-trailer” was one we’d hear a lot, and I remember being somewhat enamored of the sound of the words as well as slightly alarmed by its frequency given what an enormous disaster a jackknifed tractor trailer in fact is. Sentences in this barrage of information tend to be clipped and lack verbs: “Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town.” And to make matters worse, the announcers would jump all over the map: “then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up.” I remember trying to hold it all in my head, to picture the places they were talking about, and I always found that it was too difficult to follow. On the rare occasions that we did need the traffic report’s wisdom, we found that we’d have to strain to pick out the relevant information from this rapid barrage. But colorful touches like “the Hudson River horror show” remind you that there’s a person and a personality on the other end of this deluge of information that is so particularly stylized. I hadn’t thought about Pete Tauriello in years — in fact, I never really thought about him; I just heard his name a lot — but when Marjorie Perloff mentioned him in her chapter on Traffic in her new book, Unoriginal Genius, I gasped aloud as the “Pete Tauriello” neurons in my brain started firing again more than ten years later.
In retrospect, I think my dad probably just liked the chatter. The radio made us all feel connected to the outside world, whether or not we were paying very close attention to it. Now, of course, we have the internet to fill our lives with chatter and connection — but I think one of the things we can learn from Goldsmith’s Traffic is that not all forms of chatter are alike. Ten years from now, will radio announcers still be clipping their diction and dropping their verbs to fit all the traffic into their one-minute report? Or will news radio wither and die from the internet’s competition? Even if it doesn’t entirely vanish, I’d wager that news radio will reach ever smaller — poorer and older — segments of the population, and that it will no longer be a mainstay of middle-class suburban houses like my parents’.
I think, then, that part of what Goldsmith is getting at in his transcription projects is the power of records of utterly banal minutia to evoke the particular places and times from which they emerge. I doubt that Traffic would have had so powerful an effect on me if I hadn’t moved across the country to southern California, where names like “the BQE” make me feel nostalgic and the very idea of straining to hear the weather report in order to choose appropriate clothing is somewhat quaint. Neither the radio nor even weather itself is much a part of my life these days. But I experience these traffic reports as microcosms of a life I once lived, reflected through something I never particularly paid attention to while I was living it. Traffic reports — and weather reports, and newspapers, subjects of some of Goldsmith’s other transcription projects — are part of the texture of the everyday; they are where we live without noticing that we live there.
I am a scholar of, teacher of, student of, and writer of poetry. This constellation of identities means that when I pick up a new book of poetry, I turn into Robert fucking Langdon from the fucking Da Vinci Code: I look for correspondences, connections, patterns, “Symbology,” so that I can solve the book’s mystery and come up with a thesis clever enough to bring down the Catholic church. Mike Young’s We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough stumped me for a long time. There are no correspondences, there is no Symbology, there is just stuff and stuff and more stuff:
All the new bewilderment is about hay fever tablets.
In this it resembles the blind men running from the
elephant. In this it resembles nude appliance repair.
We’re pulled aside and told we’re loved, but listen:
the mustard gas has got to go. If I keep feeling this way
I will have to use a lot of emoticons.
The emoticons line is brilliant, but otherwise this passage is, well, kind of bewildering. The first line is intriguing and reads almost like a word-substitution game, but I can’t even imagine what it would mean to try to explain the “resemblances” noted in the second and third lines. I can make sense of the mustard gas as hyperbole, an apocalyptic version of “I love you, but lose the mustache,” but its relation to the earlier lines is utterly opaque.
My inner Robert Langdon was tearing his hair out until I told him to shut up already. This book is jam-packed with delightful moments, and it’s right and good and interesting that they’re moments instead of coy pieces of a picture-puzzle. “Dancing is just putting yourself on inside out.” “Oh, this is no cello analogy // you weepy motherfucker.” “In 1954, the last documented case of / ‘real people’ buried a milkshake recipe / and two coupons for used boxing gloves / outside Sparks, Nevada.” This book is a riot of noise and joy and weirdness, and reminds us that life is full of interesting things.
But then suddenly, three-fourths of the way of through the book, my inner Langdon found the Cryptex. In case you’ve forgotten or repressed this movie (which I swear I saw only in the dollar theater and only because it was such a cultural phenomenon), allow me to remind you that the Cryptex was the little cylinder with symbols on it that operated like a bicycle-lock and opened up to contain some kind of scroll that helped Tom Hanks solve all the mysteries. My Cryptex to Young’s book is a prose poem called “Now You Try,” and it begins like this:
Your roommate has something to tell you about the sociology of chip brands. Driving has something to tell you about shivering. Your porch has something to tell you about your ex-girlfriend. Evolution has something to tell you about acne. Bea Arthur has something to tell you about drugs. Beaches have something to tell you about community. Your mom has something to tell you, sometimes. The post office has something to tell you about the rest of your life.
It goes on for quite awhile, and it gets weirder:
If you are lying in bed and there is a maple bonbon on your nightstand a little out of reach, how much and what kind of effort you employ through your body toward that bonbon has something to tell you about death. 4AM has something to tell you, but it’s outside. The press has something to tell you they saw, but they always wait until it’s gone. Watermelons have something smart to tell you. Breakfast has something to tell you about your friends. The Decemberists have something to tell you about Russian history — yeah, you and everybody else, dude.
And so on and so on. And suddenly it all seemed clear: it’s not just that this is a book full of weird stuff, it’s that it’s a book full of weird stuff that means stuff. Everything has something to tell you if you know how to listen, and this, I think, is part of what Young is trying to tell us. The title of this poem, “Now You Try,” not only references the title of the volume (correspondences! Symbology!), but it invites the reader into this enterprise. The “formula” of this poem becomes rapidly clear, and the reader is asked to make up similar statements of her own, to look around and figure out which objects are trying to speak.
One thing that’s striking about this volume is that over half the poems are dedicated to specific people. In those poems and elsewhere, moments of real tenderness shine through: “This feeling is called kiss me. This feeling is called hi.” “The word okay is like skydiving. / If I say swingsets, will you make it rain?” “Give me something to give into. / It will be weird. It will be so weird.” These flashes of quirky sincerity put me in mind of Frank O’Hara, whose name I actually scribbled in the margins when I read these lines: “My moments of inward congratulation are / offset by meals alone in pants I really like.” If O’Hara is a patron saint of this volume, it is because he and Young both seem to be giving you a sidelong glance, revealing the marvels of the everyday while checking to make sure that nobody is taking themselves too seriously.
So if you like weirdness — if you like Craigslist, Leonard Cohen, and stray flamingos — if you hate the damn Da Vinci Code — you owe it to yourself to pick up We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough and to ready yourself for Mike Young’s forthcoming fiction collection, Look! Look! Feathers.
Huge swaths of the American population have always been into sincerity: Christians. Truckers. Moms. Emo kids. But since the early 20th century, anybody who’s identified as “cool” — with the exception of emo kids and arguably of hippies — has thrived on ironic distance. But as anybody who’s been tracking hipster culture lately knows, we are currently going down a rabbit hole in which irony is trying so hard that it’s turning into sincerity before our very eyes. Case in point: Daniel Bailey’s The Drunk Sonnets, recently out from Magic Helicopter Press, a triumph of postironic poetry and a harbinger, perhaps, of the world to come.
Now, the hipster ironists of the poetry world are the Flarfists, whose blog features a giant unicorn and the slogan “mainstream poetry for a mainstream world.” But of course, their poetry is anything but mainstream — it is assembled from the detritus of the internet as targeted through google searches, and it is nothing if not hostile to interpretation. Flarf poetry is extremely resistant to sincerity, and even to communication. It’s a parody of poetry, and a parody of the internet, and if sentiment does creep into Flarf poems it’s with invisible quotation marks around it, as in this excerpt from “Spanksgiving,” recently reposted for the holiday:
Now Ride! By now a lot of people are showing
up for their holiday weekend in the desert. A large
contingent at the retail store for “Leather Happy Hour.”
Spank hard…spank safe!
The only Turkeys I’ll be seeing this Spanksgiving are my dear
friends Brook, Katie and Baby Richy. I was very happy
to help them mark this moment in their family’s growth.
Spank hard…spank safe!
We got lots more smut in store for you all month long!
(And on a school night, nonetheless!) I had to kill
them to make them happy or some shit.
The middle stanza drips of sincerity and is probably a real excerpt from somebody’s blog except for the poet’s substitution of “Spanksgiving.” But the “spank hard… spank safe!” refrain and the bondage/smut references in the adjacent stanzas make it clear that we are supposed to smirk at the sentiment. The “mainstream poetry” Flarf slogan may be meant to indicate that the vapid and absurd internet material that the Flarfists draw from IS the mainstream now, and if their poems end up being more scatalogical and incoherent than most “mainstream” people can deal with, then maybe those people should learn to face up to the reality of their own culture. But slapping “mainstream poetry for a mainstream world” on your avant-garde poetry website might just as easily be read as hipster posturing — the equivalent of wearing a Journey T-shirt to an Animal Collective concert and challenging people to wonder about whether you really listen to Journey and whether you would be more cool or less cool if you did.
On the surface of it, Daniel Bailey’s The Drunk Sonnets (and the multi-author blog on which they were first posted), have a lot in common with Flarf. All Drunk poems, both in the book and on the blog, are written in all capital letters — the international internet language of idiocy and/or assholery. Like Flarf poems, Drunk poems feature inanity, banality, and frequent topic shifts and interruptions. But unlike Flarf poems, there is real emotional content in Drunk poems. Bailey’s book consists of real live sonnets — most of them are Italian sonnets, with an octave and a sestet and a turn and everything — describing the speaker’s alcohol-drenched misery following a breakup. Here’s one of my favorites:
IF ANYONE KNOWS WHAT IS GOING ON EVER THEN HEY
I AM HERE IT WOULD BE NICE TO TALK SOMETIME
INFOMERCIALS HAVE STARTED AND I KIND OF WANT TO DIE
I’M PRETTY SURE THIS ONE IS ACTUALLY FOR A MORGUE
OK SO ACTUALLY IT’S FOR THE BIBLE OR SOMETHING
SO IT’S A COMMERCIAL FOR TRYING TO BE HAPPY OR SOMETHING
BUT I AM NOT HAPPY TONIGHT NO I AM NOT JUST HERE
IF HAPPINESS EVER WORKED THEN HOW — I DON’T KNOW
HAPPINESS IS A LIZARD IN THE SUNLIGHT GETTING WARM
AND THEN IN THE NIGHT BENEATH A ROCK EATING FLIES
AND SWALLOWING THE MEAT OF THE TRASH OF THE DIRT
AH, SO TONIGHT IS A LITTLE DRUNK AND OK OK OK
THAT IS GOOD SO LET ME BE — THERE IS NO LOVE TONIGHT
GOD IS LIKE BONO — SOME DICKWAD NO ONE WILL EVER MEET OR LIKE
The poem begins with a sort of open-ended plea that reflects the internet age in its very vagueness. Most Facebook and Twitter updates are not addressed to anyone in particular; they are just thrown out into the abyss and we hope that some of our friends will respond. This diminishes our responsibility for our own feelings as well as potentially diminishing the intensity of our relationships; instead of calling a friend to vent about a problem, you can just post a vague allusion to it on your Facebook and receive a bunch of vague support from whatever acquaintances happen to have logged on in time to see your post. In this poem, there is real pathos in this vagueness : “IF ANYONE KNOWS WHAT IS GOING ON EVER THEN HEY / I AM HERE IT WOULD BE NICE TO TALK SOMETIME.” This is a person who is lost and lonely. In the last line of the first stanza, the speaker appears to be able to laugh a little at his own misery — “I’M PRETTY SURE THIS ONE IS ACTUALLY FOR A MORGUE” — but in the next stanza his joking façade cracks, and he says straight out that he’s unhappy.
Then suddenly, in the first stanza of the sestet, there is a total change of tone from the banal to the imaginative. The lizard seems to be a figure for the banal — feeding, as it does, on the “meat of the trash of the dirt” — but it is at least a figure in a poem that until now has been aggressively anti-poetic. I don’t think it’s exactly a metaphor; I don’t think the speaker is saying that happiness is LIKE a lizard, but rather that only simple things like lizards are happy. It’s the same construction as “happiness is a warm gun,” and I think the use of “warm” to describe the lizard might not be an accident. After this little reverie, the speaker realizes he is drunk, makes temporary peace with his loneliness, and curses God. The tone switches back to banal rambling, but the God = Bono simile betrays a wry poetic sensibility that few drunks (who aren’t poets to begin with) are capable of.
What gets me so excited about Drunk poetry as written by Bailey and friends is that it breaks down the pervasive assumption that experimental form is incompatible with emotional content. That this assumption exists baffles me, since Joyce’s Ulysses stands as an enormous and wildly famous testament to the contrary, but I have observed it in many (though not all) of my students, my colleagues, and the scholars in my field. Most importantly, I have observed it in the experimental poets of today, many of whom seem content to be tricksters and treat “feelings” as counterrevolutionary.
That’s not to say that Bailey’s sincere moments are always delightful, however. The breakup theme gets tedious (and maybe that’s intentional?), and the poetry is frequently at its wretched worst when he is at his most sincere: “I LICKED THE SPOONS THAT WE HAD SCOOPED INTO OUR HEARTS / AND I GAVE YOU TWO SCOOPS EVERY TIME — I WASN’T CHEAP.” I mean, puke. Puuuuuke. But this is an interesting post-ironic moment. Is it a joke? When we puke at these lines, are we puking with him or on him? What about these lines?
I COULD PRACTICALLY RIP MYSELF APART
AND WHAT WOULD I EVEN FIND BUT YOUR LOVE
THAT I’VE SAVED UP LIKE CRUMBS
The hipster in me recoils at the naked sentiment — last night I marked these in my book as “puke” lines, but today they look kinda nice. And this oscillation, this indeterminacy, is precisely what is going to characterize the post-ironic age. I am not proposing that a return to Byronic levels of sincerity is imminent or even advisable, but that as we feel our way back from posturing in silly haircuts to occasionally being able to say what we mean, we are going to encounter a lot of weird situations that look a lot like Bailey’s poems. The trouble with foreclosing on the possibility of sincerity — as Flarf more or less does — is that you cut off a whole lot of interpretative possibilities. But if you do occasionally say something “real,” you open up the downright dangerous possibility that anything in your poem might be “real.”
It’s not an accident, though, that Bailey & friends have adopted drunkenness as their aesthetic banner. The speech of drunk people is frequently a fascinating blend of comedy and sincerity, and it moves in and out of self-awareness pretty fluidly. One minute your drunk friend will be saying something absurd, the next minute he’ll be telling you that you are truly one of his best and most excellent friends, and in another minute he’ll be laughing at himself and telling you how drunk he is and not to listen to anything he says. The fact that Bailey’s speaker is drunk allows him to be sincere with relatively little risk; we know that our drunk friends’ resolutions generally come from genuine feelings, but at the same time we’ve learned to take them with a grain of salt.
So it appears that the Drunk poets get to have their cake and eat it too, which leaves us with just one burning question: are they really drunk, or are they writing in “drunkface”? Fred Astaire claimed in his autobiography that he knocked back two shots of bourbon before the first take of the famous drunk dancing scene from the 1942 musical Holiday Inn, and one before each successive take — and they got it on the seventh take. This scene alone is worth the price of admission; Astaire achieves a balance of grace and sloppiness that could perhaps have only been executed by a legitimately drunk professional dancer. But what about Zui Quan, the form of Chinese martial arts known as “Drunken Boxing” popularized by Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master films? Though Jackie Chan’s character is portrayed as actually drunk, real Zui Quan practitioners say that you need to be sober in order to have the balance and coordination necessary to perform the staggering, fluid motions that are merely meant to imitate drunkenness.
Here’s where I go off the conspiracy-theory deep end: Sam Pink, in one of the blurbs on the back of the book (which by the way are the two greatest blurbs I have ever read in my life), refers to “the midwest sadness embedded as deeply in [Bailey] as his Kool-Aid moustache,” and indeed, Bailey’s author bio claims that he is from Muncie, Indiana. You know who else is from Muncie? Tim Robbins’ character in The Hudsucker Proxy, a naïve midwesterner who accidentally finds himself in charge of a big-city corporation. When the femme fatale wants to gain his trust she claims to be from Muncie too, which involves an elaborate lie including singing the Muncie High fight song along with Robbins by following him a half-beat behind and being able to guess about the predicable rhymes. When her betrayal of Robbins is eventually revealed, he’s so naïve that all he can say is “I can’t believe I was betrayed by you….. a Muncie girl!”. So maybe — just maybe — Bailey’s alleged Muncie origin is a winking reference to an absolute sincerity that is, itself, ironized in the Coen Brothers’ film.
So is he really from Muncie? Is he really drunk? Does he sincerely want you to lick the spoon he has scooped into his heart? I don’t know, but I’m having fun trying to figure it out.
As you probably already know if you are a literary type, David Foster Wallace has died. In the following thoughts about Infinite Jest, I will not divulge any plot details — but I will discuss the general shape of the plot arc in a way that, frankly, would have spoiled the reading experience for me in a pretty significant way if I had known it beforehand. However, if you’ve read even a single review of IJ, you’re probably already aware of the thing that I’m wary about disclosing; my reading experience was somewhat abnormally sheltered. Let’s put it this way: if this blog post were about The Usual Suspects, it would not tell you about the identity or even the existence of Keyser Söze, but it would tell you that the movie has a twist ending. (We all knew that, right? Sorry. I shed a lot fewer tears for watchers of a two-hour movie than for readers of a thousand-page book.) Anyway, this post will give you information about plot structure, but not about plot. The undeterred can continue reading below.
One of the things I seem to keep coming back to in this blog is the question of what can and cannot and should and should not be articulated. In my last post, I invoked the myth of Cupid and Psyche in order to argue that there is a value to keeping dark corners unlit, that certain experiences are impoverished by the telling. Today I’m going to investigate some critiques of that point of view from some experimental poets, and I’m going to connect all of this to a discussion of Burning Man, a yearly festival of art, free expression, and self-reliance in the Nevada desert that I have just returned from for the second time.
The Cult of Silence
Most mainstream US poetry, since at least the 1950s, has organized its emotional economy around a conspicuously absent center. Concrete details point to a an epiphany of resonant silence, where the emotional force of the poem is expressed through its very unexpressableness. Consider, for example, Robert Hass’ poem “Meditations at Lagunitas”. The speaker begins with a sort of critique of Platonism, arguing that concrete instances of things should not be viewed as degraded versions of their ideal forms. Then he turns to words, the bottom of Plato’s hierarchy (because they are imitations of imitations of the Forms), and argues that just “because there is in this world no one thing / to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,” we should not think that “a word is an elegy to what it signifies.” (It’s tricky, of course, because all this is stated in the positive & not the negative, but the framing of the first few lines makes this criticism apparent.)
At this point, you might think that Hass is rejecting the numinous, vague world of forms — but as the end of the poem makes clear, he is in fact holding it more sacred than anything, so sacred that it cannot be described. The mistake is not believing in something beyond words, but failing to put that thing properly beyond words. As he thinks of his beloved, the speaker is driven to a series of recollections, presented paratactically in a series of concrete details, first about his childhood and then about the woman herself. The gaps in the parataxis point to what cannot be said, and the final chant of “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” walks a weird line between signifying everything and signifying nothing: the true essence of those afternoons and evenings is safely hidden where attempts to explain it cannot limit or contaminate it.
“Meditations at Lagunitas” is one of my favorite examples of this kind of poem, but as you might guess, the premise that the most important revelations are beyond words can lead to a lot of really dubious poetry. Ron Silliman, probably the most widely-read poetry blogger today, pejoratively calls this tendency in mainstream US poetry the “School of Quietude” — this is the sort of writing more widely known as “workshop lyric” because it’s the kind of poetry that’s generally encouraged by creative writing classes. You know these poems, even if you’ve never heard these terms — this is the poetry of quiet, serene epiphany, often taking place in nature. Poets of this school would agree with the declaration in my last post that “love suffers in the naming” — these are what you might call reticent poems, which rely on evocative concrete detail. Silliman calls this tendency a “school” to emphasize that it’s just one way of making poetry, and should not be thought of as the “normal” from which avant-garde poetry “deviates.” (He claims, furthermore, that every single US Poet Laureate has been a member of the SoQ, with the sole exception of William Carlos Williams, who declined the position due to illness and never served.)
And if running an institutional hegemony that’s been crowding out other styles of writing for the past few decades weren’t enough reason to dislike it, the “School of Quietude” also has plenty of critics of its aesthetic practice. In Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (1984), Charles Alteri characterizes this kind of poetry as “the scenic style,” explaining that these poems “achieve closure by a leap from the narrative to the visionary levels, as if sensitive experience reached its climax in moments of resonant silence” and goes on to criticize this approach pretty sternly: “finally, the pursuit of resonant silence may not allow the poet to say enough, may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence, especially when a cult of silence makes it easy to luxuriate in vague emotions” (15).
Alteri’s critique gives us an economics of style, where silence is a poverty taken on almost monastically as a prerequisite to visions that may or may not turn out to be worth the sacrifice. But he clearly sees hypocrisy in this “cult,” in which an initial vow of asceticism devolves quickly into complacency — the silence that was supposed to make us all seekers has instead dulled that impulse and made us all either converts to or heretics of a new orthodoxy.
The Heresy of Eloquence
David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg were already heretics in 1965, when they began the poetry magazine some/thing with a manifesto railing against this aesthetics of resonant silence. It’s a problem for much more than poetry, they argue; the cult of silence is diminishing our ability to understand ourselves and others:
THE MOST TERRIBLE EXPERIENCE OF THE LAST THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS HAS BEEN THE GROWING CONVICTION THAT THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ASPECTS OF REALITY HAVE BECOME UNSPEAKABLE WITH THE CONSEQUENCE THAT THEY HAVE ALSO COME TO FEEL UNREAL THEY ARE UNREAL
STATEMENT: I CAN CALL SPIRITS FROM THE VASTY DEEP
QUESTION: BUT WILL THEY COME
THE FEELING THAT SOME/THING LIES OUT THERE THAT WE CANNOT LAY HOLD OF IS THE FEELING OF THE INADEQUACY OF THE EXISTING ORDER IT IS THE DEMAND FOR A DIFFERENT ORDER THE CONDITION OF POETRY THE NEED TO GAIN GROUND
Antin and Rothenberg up the ante, then, when they say that the problem is not just the emotional economy of a particular style of poetry, but a general trend in consciousness. Once we start to treat our “most significant” experiences with reverent silence, these experiences start to feel unreal — and consequently become unreal, for what are they but feelings? The quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV in this context is not about devils, but about emotions: you can name them, but will you feel them? Antin and Rothenberg want to turn this skepticism about the connection between words and experience into a positive force: instead of passing over in silence that which we cannot speak of, we ought to be constructing new ways of speaking.
A tall order, you say. Shall we concoct a new alphabet? Put together new words out of nonsense syllables? No and no: all Antin wants is for people to listen to each other, rather than assuming that the truth of another person is out of reach or, worse, already understood. In a piece entitled “tuning,” he writes,
at this point i think its very important for us to form a new notion of human rapprochement thats not based on understanding and i would like to contribute to not understanding i would like to contribute to human not understanding i would like to slow down the fantasy and illusion of understanding so that we could inspect the way and the pace at which we are approaching or leaving other people and see how far away they are and whether there is any reason or prospect for reaching them because one thing thats been promoted endlessly in the world is the fantasy of understanding the notion that its always possible desirable and costs nothing
For Antin, subjectivity is always in motion, a state of affairs belied by our traditional metaphors for understanding, such as “getting,” “grasping,” and “finding common ground.” In “gambling,” a companion piece to “tuning,” Antin says that such metaphors “reinforce the static sense of knowing whereby it seems a kind of standing instead of going” and suggests that “there is another way of talking about all this because wherever im standing ill only be there for a while.” Antin would like to replace these static notions of understanding with the concept of “tuning,” the process whereby musicians, by alternately sounding and listening, come to a point where their notes match up. He likens it to walking side by side, where the longer-legged person shortens her stride, and the shorter-legged person speeds up a little bit, so that they can move together harmoniously. When we walk we do this more or less unconsciously, but when we talk we ought to know that we are doing it; we ought to be aware that we are coming from different places, and that my words might not mean the same thing to you that they do to me, and we ought to take turns talking and listening until we are both satisfied that we hitting the same — or nearly the same — notes.
The Price of Vision
It’s not news that the Burning Man festival costs a lot of money and time, and hence is only open to a certain, economically privileged section of the population. Problematic as that is, I want to talk about a different kind of price tag. Charles Alteri set up this economy for us earlier when he said that “the pursuit of resonant silence . . . may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence.” In the “School of Quietude,” vision is purchased by giving up words, by foregoing the hope that the numinous can be made concrete, by declaring eloquence to be worthless. At Burning Man the numinous is made concrete, again and again and again. At an art installation called CheckPoint DreamYourTopia, visitors were asked to fill out lengthy, complicated forms, endure harassment from border guards, and undergo interrogation by customs agents in order to be granted passports to the “Land of Dreams.” A giant duck with a disco-ball head that shot flames roamed the desert hosting a mobile party. The temple burned, as it does every year, sending the hopes, fears, regrets, prayers, and messages of the thousands of participants who wrote on its wooden walls literally up to the heavens in smoke.
None of these artistic feats could have been accomplished under an ideology of resonant silence. Burning Man has got an ideology of riotous noise, incarnated not only in the thumping electronic music that is audible at all places at all times of the day and night, but in all of the creations, costumes, and events that the participants bring to life. The giant duck you build may not quite be the giant duck of your dreams, but it makes your dream real for thousands of other people, and allows them to live their own dreams. Over and over again, you find yourself saying “fuck it — let’s do that” — let’s climb that tower, let’s swing on those swings, let’s light those lamps, let’s talk to that guy, let’s use that giant mechanical hand to pick up and crush cars. Any possibility that you don’t seize and turn into a reality there, you will eventually regret. (I didn’t bother to wait in line for the giant mechanical hand, and will basically never forgive myself.)
Furthermore, I’ve never been to a place where Davin Antin’s notion of “tuning” was more possible — people at Burning Man are far more open to one another than most people in what burners call “the default world.” One source of this is certainly the sense of camaraderie, the sense that you all share certain fundamental beliefs and inclinations. But I think another source is a heightened sense of subjectivity as something fundamentally in motion, like Antin describes — burners come from all over the world, from all kinds of different backgrounds and walks of life, and share a single bizarre space for a brief time. Moreover, the city is so chaotic and people keep such different hours that the likelihood of you seeing any one person a second time (unless you are camping with them, or try really hard) are pretty slim. All encounters are understood to be momentary crossings of paths: you fall into step with somebody, you talk, you go your separate ways.
I didn’t write on the temple. Part of it was that I didn’t know what to write, and part of it was the pervasive influence of the cult of silence: if I did try to write something personally sacred, wouldn’t I mess it up by writing it wrong, or writing it only partially, or failing to do it justice? This afternoon, David Antin reminded me that “the weakness of representation is also its strength . . . all representations are at the expense of other representations, and the only way to deal with this is to preserve some sense of their provisionality.” This, I think, is what Burning Man does in spades: every year, the man is burned, the temple is burned, and a whole city of 50,000 people vanishes without a trace when the festival is over.
The price of vision, then, is provision. If you want to keep what you hold sacred inviolate and pure, you are going to have to keep it to yourself. But if you want to bring it into the world and share it with others, it’s not going to come out in quite the way you imagined, it’s not going to last forever, and it’s probably going to get a little dusty.
“Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia. Everything is to be discovered, everything to be obliterated.” — Jean Baudrillard, America
“Life, friends, is boring,” proclaims Henry at the beginning of Berryman’s fourteenth Dream Song. If you’ve ever been on a lengthy car trip, you know that there are few things more boring. Sometimes the road brings startling things into your path, but there are long, barren stretches in between. Sometimes you are blessed with a conversation partner, but even the chattiest of friends runs out of steam after a few hours. Sometimes there is something good on the radio, but most of the time it’s country, preaching, static, or something you’ve heard thirty thousand times before. And every few hours, you have to stop for gas, food, the bathroom.
Gabriel Gudding’s brand-new Rhode Island Notebook (Nov 23 2007, Dalkey Archive Press) is a book of poetry that was handwritten in notebooks as Gudding drove back and forth between Illinois and Rhode Island twenty-six times. It is a book that embraces boredom and transforms it, proving that the author is firmly in touch with his “Inner Resources.” It is a record of mileage, billboards, and bug splats, but it is also a record of loss, suffering, and redemption. Here’s an excerpt:
Are hot with coffee, you can’t
solve or remove or understand
suffering, you really can’t
understand anything. The best
you can do, 1:49am, while thinking is see
similarities among particularities jesus
what the shit am I talking about, best you
can do is to keep a loving heart 79000m Odo
844.7m fr Providence Tractor & trailer
in the ditch. Pee 2 AM
Newsflash: I don’t need
to get anything from the world.
I had planned for my series on the poetics of attention to proceed in an orderly manner from Frost to Stevens to Williams, etc, but Gudding’s book is such a stunning example that I felt compelled to inform you immediately. I wrote in my last entry that the demands of attention are always contradictory — we must be open to the world, but we also must perform the tasks of synthesis and analysis which require our abstraction from the world. Gudding’s text is constantly interrupting itself as he moves between these two modes. There are lengthy meditations on subjects such as literary narcissism, the importance of dung, Nancy Reagan’s life as a psychotic nightmarish eagle, and the meaning of suffering, but even these extended treatises are peppered throughout with the sort of information you see above — the odometer, the traffic conditions, the stops to pee. The very process of reading the book becomes a kind of exercise in attention; it’s tempting to treat this information as “noise,” skimming past it to get to the good stuff (Nancy Reagan’s nipples are made of nickel!), but it serves an important function — namely, it grounds the whole book in a continuous present. Even if you skip over these textual details, they’re there, as insistent and banal as the facts themselves, reminding you where Gudding is, what the weather’s like, and how long he’s been on the road. You are confronted with your desire to filter, to privilege information about Gudding’s mind over information about his body or his car.
It is a profoundly lonely book. The trips Gudding makes back and forth between Illinois and Rhode Island are undertaken in order to see his wife and daughter, who live half a continent away. Over the course of the book, the marriage falls apart and the trips become less frequent. Gudding is almost always alone in the car — very occasionally his daughter is with him — yet the book is not claustrophobic, because Gudding’s mind is always reaching outward, observing and fantasizing and reflecting. Though the divorce is the book’s main “plot” line, very few of its details are discussed. The real throughline is the gradual sea-change in Gudding’s emotional states: the narration is always heterogeneous, but at the start of the book we see him being flippant and vitriolic about a wide range of subjects (including, importantly, the start of the Iraq war and the concordant rise in patriotic bumper-stickers) more often than not. As the divorce starts to become real, he starts to report his emotional states as though they were more roadside facts, as here:
88m fr. Providence. Am
incredibly sad. blue steel
double-arch “dromedary” bridge
over Quinnipiac River 95m
The book is structured around the epic conventions of anabasis and katabasis, the descent into and march up from hell. As it progresses, and he begins to process his loss, the notebooks (which are still, as before, assiduously reporting road conditions) begin to reflect a change in focus and a change in resolve.
In the prologue, Gudding refers to a notebook as “a road through emptiness, a sea sewn to a spine.” It records your journey, but more than that, it makes your life into a journey, by giving it epochs with beginnings, middles, and ends even if they are bounded arbitrarily by the number of pages. I too am a keeper of notebooks; they are similarly full of debris, but when I start a new one or end an old one I am forced to give an account of myself, to take stock. In between, the things I scratch down furtively in train stations and coffeehouses become my definitive history. I opened one at random today, and found this on 4/13/02: “Am I really going to be doing this for the rest of my life? Putting words in sequences on a page? Shouldn’t I go do something useful, like build a bridge? But I am building a bridge, if you think about it. A bridge from me to ‘you’ even if you is just a page in a notebook or another part of myself. My tea is cold. Fuck.”
John Ashbery said in a 1981 interview that, “Most of my poems are about the experience of experience. I’m trying to set down a generalized transcript of what’s really going on in our minds all day long.” I love him deeply, but somehow my mind fails to produce transcripts like his: “The immense hope, and forbearance / Trailing out of night, to sidewalks of the day / Like air breathed into a paper city, exhaled / As night returns bringing doubts”. Gudding’s Notebook is much more like mind as I know it — full of nonsense, full of noise, easily distracted, self-obsessed, but occasionally brilliant. It is, in many ways, a relief.