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.
First of all, this is old news to most of you who know me personally, but all of you in blog-land might be interested to know that I’ve got an article published on H.D.’s Trilogy, her WWII epic poem, and her seances in which she talked to dead RAF pilots. It’s in the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory’s most recent issue, and it’s called “‘An Unusual Way to Think’: Trilogy‘s Oracular Poetics.” You can download & read the PDF for free. Yay for the information age!
If you’ve been starved for my friendlier, less academic prose (and what follows below is not enough to slake your thirst), you can also check out the poetry reviews that I recently did for Noö Journal — mine are the first two pieces in the magazine, actually, linked there on the upper right.
Okay, on with the show. In what follows, as the title of this post promises, I will talk about Gertrude Stein for awhile and then I will make some connections to the series finale of Lost, because I am a dork. I will put that section behind the fold, for the spoiler-conscious, and I will endeavor to make the first part of the post worthwhile in and of itself. I will also try to make the section on Lost as general and thematic as possible, so that you can read it and get something out of it even if you haven’t watched the series.
Because I am an immensely unwise person, I have decided that my dissertation requires me to read Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, a 925-page-long reputedly incoherent tome which is actually blurbed with the following line from the New Yorker: “The first stunningly original disaster of modernism.” But to my great surprise, I am enjoying the hell out of it. Here is part of the section with which I am currently madly in love. I quote at some length so you can get the effect of her prose, but please do try to read this attentively, because the nuances are important:
Every one is always repeating the whole of them. Always, one having loving repeating to getting completed understanding must have in them an open feeling, a sense for all the slightest variations in repeating, must never lose themselves so in the solid steadiness of all repeating that they do not hear the slightest variation. If they get deadened by the steady pounding of repeating they will not learn from each one even though each one always is repeating the whole of them they will not learn the completed history of them, they will not know the being really in them.
As I was saying every one always is repeating the whole of them. As I was saying sometimes it takes many years of listening, seeing, living, feeling, loving the repeating there is in some before one comes to a completed understanding. This is now a description, of such a way of hearing, seeing, feeling, living, loving, repetition.
Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating. Mostly everyone, then, comes to know then the being of some one by loving the repeating in them, the repeating coming out of them. There are some who love everybody’s repeating, this is now a description of such loving in one.
Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating. Everyone always is repeating the whole of them. This is now a history of getting completed understanding by loving repeating in every one the repeating that always is coming out of them as a complete history of them. This is now a description of learning to listen to all repeating that every one is always making of the whole of them.
A large part of The Making of Americans is essentially a typology of characters — Stein attempts to describe different “types” of people who live in America. This concept is what she is introducing at the end of this passage; the narrator is someone “who love[s] everybody’s repeating,” and has listened sufficiently to everybody so as to piece together a “complete history” of all of them.
But let’s back up. What does it mean to say that “every one is always repeating the whole of them”? First of all, there’s the sense of verbal “repetition,” which of course this text itself enacts. We all have favorite stories about ourselves to tell, favorite topics to discuss, frequent refrains in our daily accounts of ourselves. I presently have a semi-regular non-appointment with a friend of mine for what generally turn out to be quite long conversations about our presents and pasts. He is a relatively new acquaintance, which means I get to trot out some of my “greatest hits,” and have thus had the opportunity to examine this particular(ly narcissistic) pleasure. It’s the pleasure of a well-told story as much as of a well-lived life; I admire myself for both the events and their recounting equally. Because of course for me, these stories are already repetitions, benefiting from earlier tellings. But I worry that some of these stories have stopped being “authentic” because they have been told so many times, and that I might not be giving my interlocutor as much attention as he deserves by launching into these rhapsodies as often as I do. (Speaking of favorite themes, see this post for an earlier meditation of mine on personal anecdotes and the authenticity thereof.) But Stein loves repetition. She would tell me, I think, that repetition makes my stories more authentic, in the sense that as I refine them, they become more perfect expressions of myself. Not only do they become better vehicles for conveying whatever truth about myself inheres in stories about — for example — my summer jobs in high school, but they become better entertainment for my interlocutor, and I think this latter function should not be overlooked.
So there is verbal repetition — but there is also, like, life repetition. In a mundane sense, we all have schedules. We all have approximately set times when we wake up and when we go to sleep, most of us have some kind of official work schedule we have to abide by, and many of us have more or less ritualized ways that we use our spare time: we go to the same couple of lunch places, we unwind at the end of the day with a beer and The Daily Show, whatever. In a more profound sense, most of our lives are shaped by broader patterns of repetition: the same damn relationship hang-ups playing out again and again, the same nonsense day in and day out from your mother that you thought you both would have outgrown by now, etc. Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit is also about repetition — according to this theory, certain traumatic events leave us numb because we are unable to process them, but then later (often much later) in life, a seemingly unrelated stimulus can set off an emotional reaction out of all proportion with the stiumulus itself, because this reaction is the result of much-belated emotions connected to the original traumatic event.
What I like about Stein’s formulation (“every one is always repeating the whole of them”) is that it levels all these senses of repetition, from the echoing effect of profound emotional trauma to your verbal tics and your morning coffee ritual, and says that in all of these repetitions you are repeating “the whole of [you].” It reminds me of fractals, geometric drawings made up of pieces that are each smaller-sized copies of the whole. We all, I think, worry about the degree to which our lives our repetitive. Most of us have escape fantasies, whether or not we have any actual desire to act on them. Maybe I read too much Jack Kerouac as a teenager, but I suspect I am not the only person who sometimes fancies that she could be living a better and freer and more authentic life if she could just summon the courage to quit her job and hit the open road. What Stein does here is show us that repetition is authenticity — we can’t escape it even if we try. If we didn’t have desires that lead us to the same perfectly-calibrated cup of coffee every morning, or habitual turns of phrase that are uniquely our own, then who would we be?
The counterpart to this is the theory of love that Stein espouses here: “Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating.” This is, by necessity, a theory of long-term love. She reminds us that “sometimes it takes many years of listening, seeing, living, feeling, loving the repeating there is in some before one comes to a completed understanding.” If repetition is authenticity, then repetition demands attention — not boredom or disengagement, which might be our more automatic responses. Importantly, Stein recognizes that the repetition in our lives is never exact repetition, though it may look that way to outsiders. Love, for Stein, becomes paying attention to the nuances of somebody’s repetitions. Change does not always happen drastically — in fact, most change in our lives probably occurs at a gradual pace, as a matter of drift in a series of repetitions rather than as a radical break. And what is sharing your life with someone if not the process of gradually letting your repetitions overlap and shape one another?
This is the part where I’m going to start talking about the television show Lost. If you’ve been watching the show but haven’t seen the finale yet, you should probably stop reading. If you’ve never seen it and/or have only vague plans to watch it someday, you can go ahead and continue, because I will not reveal any answers to any mysteries; I’m just going to describe the kind of emotional closure that the show gives us while avoiding specifics as much as possible.
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.
If my halfassed ethical critique was not enough for you, and you need more Greif-hating in your life, I highly recommend this post by Zunguzungu, passed along to me by my friend Max. Zunguzungu takes Greif to task for, among other things, historical inaccuracy, ethnocentrism, ignorance of evolutionary biology, insensitivity to the gay marriage movement, and failure to make a sound argument.
If you are pressed for time and just want some bite-sized snark, check this out: “The Shadow Editors: Reading Mark Greif’s N+1 Piece in Real Time.” Here is possibly the best moment:
Tom Scocca: God [wrings hands], I sometimes wish I were gay, so pure pleasure and love wouldn’t be bound up in all this…this hegemonic, patriarchal structure of authority that man-woman relations are always suffocated by. [Clasps hands, stares at place wall meets ceiling.] You know? To just love a person for love’s sake. Gay people, they’ve been cast out by society, but that’s, that’s like being cast out of PRISON, in some ways, really, isn’t it?
I write to you today in response to an article that some of my friends have been pointing to urgently but not really talking about: On Repressive Sentimentalism, by Mark Greif. The piece is worth reading in its entirety if you have the time, but here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: Greif proposes that progressive politics has allowed itself to be straightjacketed by the rhetoric of the religious right, defending gay rights in terms only of marriage and feminism in terms only of abortion. The particular problem he sees is that progressives seem to unquestioningly accept the ways that the right characterizes these as sentimental issues: marriage is a happily-ever-after union with your destined partner, and abortions are tragic. How else might we view these issues? Greif proposes that the promise of the gay rights movement is not simply equal marriage rights for all, but the possibility that the institution of marriage itself could be radically questioned. The nuclear family once served a number of socioeconomic functions that it no longer does, which has has left marriage with only an emotional function, and one that it does not even fulfill very well. This part of the argument is worth quoting at some length:
[The nuclear family] is no longer necessary as the site of the pre-capitalist workshop. It is no longer the only structure for child-rearing, as children now come out of so many differently constituted families. The family no longer houses the old folks of several generations. It’s no longer even the privileged secular space for intimate confession and support, as this modern necessity is increasingly outsourced, well down the class ladder, to therapists, gurus, and members of all the helping professions. When marriage has as its main purpose a total and unique defense against loneliness and isolation and anomie, then it’s been saddled with a function too grand and dishonest for it ever to meet; no wonder it will seem imperfect, disappointing, not yet the right, ﬁnal marriage.
The appeal to anomie simply ignores, post-1960s, the emotional capacities we’ve gained. We now resist atomization and anomie with the wide range of unusually warm, non-exclusive and simultaneous friendships, often verging on erotism but not compelled to it, both across and within the sexes, and among straights and gays—this extraordinary birthright the ’60s gave to all those of us born, say, after 1969. The range is better than any narrowing. The multiplicity of friendships trumps the marriage structure. Yet these relations really survive, and thrive, only until marriage begins to clear its throat, and they are jeopardized by the cowardly constraints of couplehood. Marriage is lye poured upon the petri dish of the new relations of erotic sociality.
For better and worse (and for richer and for poorer), marriage is also almost inevitably intolerable to any post-’60s individual who counts the accumulation of strong experience and passionate feeling as the sine qua non of meaningful existence.
I will have some things to say about this in a minute, but for now I will continue with the paraphrase. Marriage, sentimentalized as a forever-bond, prevents people from recognizing the other interesting ways that they could be connecting with people. The abortion debate is similarly restricted by sentimentalization; Greif argues that progressives should stop calling abortion “sad but necessary” and start calling it “right and good” — the issue, he says, should be freedom rather than choice: free and legal abortion is required for women to have the most basic equality with men in terms of planning their lives. The connection between the two issues — marriage and abortion — is, of course, sex. Both debates come down to a squeamishness on the part of the religious right about the idea of sex without consequences, which Greif defends as not just fun and fulfilling, but deeply important to developing a more inclusive and tolerant morality:
You have to defend sex because we still have no better model than the actual, concrete sexual relation for a deep intuitive process opposed to domination. We have no better model for a bodily process that, fundamentally, is free and universal. It does not produce (there is no experiential remainder but pleasure) nor consume. It is cooperative (within the relation of the lovers) and, in that relation, seems to forbid competition. It makes you love people, and accept the look and difference of their bodies. […] Sexual cooperation is the other side of our basic human nature, and matches and disarms economic competition. Conservatives look to the chimpanzees, utopians to bonobos. One viewpoint prefers that side of our evolutionary ancestry that punches and rapes; the other that side, of equal propinquity, that rubs genitals and makes out.
I think these are all valuable and interesting ideas, which is why I’m bringing them to your attention, but something about this article didn’t sit quite right with me, and after some thought I realized it was this: Fundamental to Greif’s argument is a valuing of freedom with regard to our interpersonal relationships — marriage is bad because it restricts that freedom, limiting our ability to get to know and love our neighbors, and outlawing abortion is bad because it prevents women from being able to determine the course of their lives. But what happens when you do decide to bring a child into your life, whether by giving birth or by adoption? You commit to loving a person, sight unseen, who may not turn out to even like you very much. You commit enormous amounts of financial and emotional resources to a person who may walk out the door on her eighteenth birthday and never speak to you again. Even if your relationship with your child doesn’t fail quite that dramatically, it’s almost certain that the relationship will not turn out exactly as you imagined — and yet you are still ethically obligated to that relationship at least until your child reaches adulthood. My point here is that it is actually impossible to conduct all of our relationships as though we had no long-term obligations to them. Greif mentions “unorthodox childrearing and communal parenthood” in his list of reforms that utopians have historically fought for, but I think that solution misses the point in two ways. First, it is extremely difficult to manage both legally and socially in today’s world, though it might be viable as a longterm progressive goal. Second, if you were going to make something like communal parenthood work, and have it be more like a family than like an institution, it would have to involve serious commitments to the parenting enterprise on the part of at least one if not several members of the commune — which gets us right back to my point that the freedom to terminate your affective ties at will runs up against a limit case when you are talking about a parent’s affective ties to a child.
The fact that we have a profound — I hesitate to use the world “absolute” — obligation to our children is, I think, an argument for the importance of other kinds of interpersonal commitments, too. I agree wholeheartedly with Greif that the world would be a better place if the family unit were not so tyrannically policed, if family configurations other than man-woman-child were recognized and accepted, but I also think that without commitment there can be no family. (This does not, however, have to mean exclusive romantic commitment.) It’s nice to imagine a commitment-free world where you might be able to wake up each morning and freely choose whether to continue living with and loving your family members, but I think Greif is overstating the amount of choice we could theoretically have in the matter. In “Whom to Give to (Knowing Not to Know),” Jacques Derrida points out that choices like this are extremely difficult if we take them seriously: “As soon as I enter into a relation with the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other I know I can respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever obliges me also to respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all the others.” He gives the somewhat trivial but still troubling example of his cat: why should I feed my cat and ignore all the stray cats in the world? In terms of the family, one might ask: why should I feed this child and not all the children starving in Africa? Why should I devote my time and energy to this partner when there are so many other worthy partners in the world?
A family is, frankly, convenient to most people precisely because it provides us with a fairly easy answer to the terrifying ethical question posed by our limited time and resources and shouted at us by George Thorogood: “Who do you love?”. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Even if we bracketed the question of child-rearing, I don’t think a world without any concept of family is particularly desirable.
That said, I think there are some worthwhile lessons to be learned from Greif’s vision of a sexually-liberated utopia even if you refuse to throw the baby of commitment out with the bathwater of traditional marriage. For one thing, I think he’s right that most people do themselves a disservice if they allow a single romantic relationship to stifle all their other connections to people. I also think he’s right that it would be a mistake to let any romantic relationship go unevaluated — but commitment to a romantic relationship “for better or for worse” doesn’t have to mean not trying to make it better, or not leaving when it’s unfixably worse. The trick is to not allow yourself to slide into complacency, and Greif is not wrong to characterize marriage as an institution that seems almost designed to encourage it — but that doesn’t mean complacency is inevitable.
I turn, as I often do, to Simone Weil. One fragment in her notebooks goes like this: “Possible loves — are for fools — the wise have — impossible loves.” Weil has a gift for making counterintuitive statements that are strangely compelling, forcing you to change your habits of thinking, and this line is no exception. Two kinds of impossible loves come to mind first: those that are prevented by circumstances, and those that are unrequited. Weil is perhaps trying to tell us that these unrealizable loves are valuable because they ask us to make a change, to either break free from those repressive circumstances or to try to improve ourselves to be worthy of our beloved. Possible loves require no such change, and therefore do not help us grow. (This, I think, is similar to Greif’s position.) But there is a third kind of “impossible love” that Weil might be referring to: not the love that is denied us, but the love that we — impossibly — receive. If you can remember that everyone who loves you is a miracle, and if you work every day towards deserving that love, then I don’t think it matters whether you love fifty people or just one person over the course of your lifetime. Love can always change you for the better if you let it.
As you have no doubt noticed, I’m having a hard time figuring out what to say to this blog lately, since my academic thoughts are all getting funneled into my dissertation. But two out of my three most recent posts have been collage-poems, so I figure I may as well share with you another poem in order to keep this place from going completely dark. Lately in places other than this blog I have been experimenting with another poetic technique of constraint, wherein I take every Nth letter of an existing, usually rather famous poem, and write a new poem connecting those words in the order that I found them. The best results of this I have been hoarding with the ambition of getting them published someplace, but tonight’s poem hits that place between “potentially publishable” and “do not show to anyone ever” that blogs so happily occupy — and besides, I think it’s kind of fun. Instead of a poem, I used “The Promised Land,” one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, as my source text, because it’s my last night in Jersey until December. Enjoy.
Thirty miles into Utah and the
radio stops working. Barefoot driving
turns me part machine; soon the cops won’t know
who to tell to step out of what. They all said to live
in the moment, like a moment was a place where you could
wipe your feet and hang your hat. I don’t know anymore
what I’ve done, just that I’ve got a long way to go.
Your eyes can’t tell when somebody’s gone cold-hearted, so just
remember this: when you get cut and somebody else bleeds,
the dogs understand. Cut yourself into ribbons,
boy; believe in the dark spaces between them.
I’m heading straight for the twister,
so either you’ve gotta blow apart
your tomorrows or you’ve gotta leave the keys
in the ignition. They all said to live in the moment
like a moment was a goddamn split-level condo.
I believe in starting fires and running
for the horizon.
Readers of this blog (with relatively long memories) may be interested to learn that I have just finished teaching a class on sacrifice, something I started to think seriously about two and a half years ago. I proposed the class over a year ago, and have been offered two chances to teach it since then, both of which I had to turn down because of other, more attractive teaching offers. This summer my number came up again and I was thrilled to finally get a chance to do it. The class went wonderfully, and my students were shockingly good, but teaching what’s supposed to be a ten-week course in a five-week summer session ate up all of my dissertating time. I taught the last class two days ago, finished grading their second-to-last papers yesterday, and found myself this morning facing a one-day-long chunk of potential dissertating time — because the drafts of their final papers start coming in tomorrow.
And I rebelled. “One day,” I said to myself, “is barely enough time to reacquaint myself with my notes and get back into the headspace of even thinking about this chapter. And then tomorrow I’ll have to start reading drafts again. I can’t possibly do real work today.” So instead I wrote a poem, using the same collage method I used on the one I posted in March. (In fact, it’s made from leftover words from the previous and certainly better poem, which is part of why there are so few concrete images here — I used up all the good ones on my first effort.) I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that collage really might be where my poetic voice lies. It’s just so damn hard to say anything in this post-ironic day and age. This blog is painfully sincere a lot of the time, and I’m always sort of amazed that nobody makes fun of me for it — my theory is that my entries are so long & academic that only people who genuinely care about me and/or what I have to say even make it to the end of most of them. (Hint: the end is always where it gets sappy.) But even though I’m (almost) capable of maintaining a blog that is very sincere about literature, I quail before the idea of writing a poem that says something about myself in anything like a straightforward manner. It’s not that I have burning feelings that I am afraid of putting into words, either — I’m not sure that I’ve experienced that particular kind of angst since I was about twenty years old. Rather, what excites me about poetry these days is the idea of letting the words tell their own stories — of hunting those stories out, sifting among fragments and letting them cohere and settle until they find a shape that I can call a poem.
All of that is basically to say that I utterly disown any gothy melodrama that the poem below may exude. The words, it was their idea.
I recently saw the film All About Eve, and today I posted on Facebook that I’d noticed significant structural similarities between its plot and that of Henry James’ novel The Golden Bowl, but that I was resisting the urge to write a blog post about it because I was pretty sure that nobody cared. Some friends assured me that they did, in fact, care, so I am now writing that blog post. Note that this post will be full of spoilers, especially of the film, but both works have plenty to recommend them even if you know the broad contours of their plots already.
Basically, the similarity I see is this: both plots are divided into two distinct halves, and what happens at the turn in the middle is that we are given a new perspective on the situation which causes different characters to become sympathetic. This summary will be pretty rough-hewn, as it’s been years since I read The Golden Bowl, but it goes something like this: the first half of the book is from the perspective of the prince, who is in love with Charlotte, a plucky young American, but has to marry the princess because she has money and he, though of noble blood, is destitute. Charlotte (who is the princess’s best friend) marries the princess’s father so that she can continue to be near the prince, and she and the prince unsurprisingly begin to have an affair — but the princess and her father seem not to notice; they are homebodies and enjoy each other’s company immensely, and don’t mind that Charlotte and the prince are always going out to balls together. Throughout the first half of the book, we are basically rooting for Charlotte and the prince, since they have love on their side and it doesn’t hurt that they’re the only characters doing anything interesting. The princess strikes us as a pretty flat and pretty naive character who has failed to outgrow her attachment to her father, and thus her claim on the prince’s affections seems to be not nearly as urgent or genuine as Charlotte’s. But in the second half of the novel, we see things from the princess’s perspective, and we realize that she does know what is going on, and is genuinely wounded, and moreover has every right to be wounded. Is it so wrong for a woman to enjoy her father’s company? Is it so wrong for her to be a homebody? Does that really give her husband the right to have a semi-public affair with her best friend? We are left somewhat chagrined by having written her off so early, and we cheer her on as she finally gains some agency and deals with the situation.
In the first half of All About Eve, Eve is given to us as a slavish admirer of Margot Channing, a celebrated but aging star of the theater played by Bette Davis. Eve works tirelessly as Margot’s assistant — and though we know that she has acting aspirations of her own, Eve seems so genuinely selfless that when Margot turns on her, all we can see is crazy old Bette Davis getting drunk and having a persecution complex. But in the second half of the movie, something strange happens: Margot apologizes. Not to Eve, granted — she doesn’t get the chance — but to their mutual friends, she says something along the lines of “yeah, I’m sorry I acted so crazy the other day; I guess I’m just past my prime and starting to realize it, and it makes me flip out sometimes.” Sunset Boulevard came out just two months before All About Eve (in August and October of 1950, respectively), but I think I’m not wrong when I say that in 1950, the idea that a character who seemed so firmly in a downward, crazy, destructive spiral — especially one who was a woman and no longer young — could just turn around and apologize and start acting like a human being again must have been kind of surprising. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire hit the stage in 1947, though it wouldn’t be adapted to film until 1951, and I admit that a lot of the examples of the “crazy aging woman” plot that I was going to cite here turn out to be later — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is 1955, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane of course features an even older and even crazier Bette Davis. Regardless, I’m reasonably certain that a 1950s audience would not have expected Margot to be able to do anything but get older and drunker and crazier.
But that’s not what happens at all — not only does Margot stop acting crazy, but it turns out she was right about Eve all along: Eve was trying to undermine her, to take over her dramatic roles and her romantic relationships, and it’s Eve who turns out to be the crazy one. What I’m proposing here is that the shift that happens in the middle of the film is similar to the one that happens in the middle of The Golden Bowl — our understanding of Margot for the first half of the film is shaped (quite deliberately, I think) by our preconceived notions of what a “crazy aging woman” plot looks like, much like our understanding of the princess is shaped by our preconceived notions about this sort of “love triangle” plot should look like. The suitor who offers wealth and stability is inevitably the “false” suitor; we assume that this person cannot also be offering true love, because if he or she were, then it would be a lot more difficult for our hero to feel noble about rejecting wealth and privilege in order to run off with his/her “true” lover. The Golden Bowl reminds us that our hero is never just rejecting wealth and privilege; he or she is also rejecting a human being. For the first half of the book, the princess is, if not a villain, at least a hapless victim who basically deserves her bad fortune — similarly, in the first half of All About Eve, we figure that even if Margot is right and Eve is scheming to further her own career, Eve deserves to further her own career and Margot ought to graciously step aside and let the next generation of actresses have their turn in the spotlight.
What both plots show us, then, is the power of plots themselves. At the turning point, they reveal the constructedness and contrivance of the first half, and the characters initially portrayed as unsympathetic get to have their say. There’s a lesson here about literature (and film), but there’s also a lesson about life, as there tends to be in this blog: pay close attention to the “plots” you impose on the things that happen to you — you may be the protagonist of your story, but everybody is their own protagonist, and if somebody looks like a flat character from where you’re sitting, that’s only because you are a poor writer.
Here’s a meme I picked up from Ron Silliman’s blog: list the 20 books that caused you to fall in love with poetry. It is, as Ron notes, quite a different proposition from asking you to list the 20 books of poetry most influential on your current thinking. My list is pretty weird, shaped largely by what I happened to come in contact with during high school, and by a particular class I took in college which cemented my certainty that experimental poetry was What I Was Going To Do With My Life. Here’s the list in alphabetical order, with some explanatory notes.
Will Alexander, Asia and Haiti — I decided to write a paper about this in that class because it was the most difficult book we’d read so far. Making that decision made me feel pretty cool.
John Ashbery, Your Name Here — A peculiar choice from Ashbery’s oeuvre, to be sure, but it was the first book of his I ever came across. “The Fortune Cookie Crumbles” remains one of my favorite poems ever.
Karin Boye, Complete Poems, tr. David McDuff — This was sent to me by my cousins in Sweden, and it was exactly what a melodramatic teenager needed. Her poems are a strange marriage of strong viking spirit and burning romance. Here are some lines that stick with me to this day: “Fair, fair is joy, fair also is sorrow. / But fairest is to stand on pain’s battlefield / with stilled mind and see that the sun is shining.”
Reggie Cabico and Todd Swift, eds., Poetry Nation: The North American Anthology of Fusion Poetry — I bought this book at Barnes & Noble when I was about fifteen because I wanted to find out “what people were writing today,” and I was so charmed that I read at least four or five of the poems in here at an event at my high school. I think the major revelation that the book gave me was that poetry could be really fucking funny without being trivial, a fact that would be reinforced by all the experimental stuff I would begin reading once I got to college. A few years ago, Cabico was brought out as a special guest at a poetry reading I’d participated in, and it seemed like I made his year by recognizing him and explaining at great length what his anthology had meant to me.
e.e. cummings, 100 Selected Poems — A friend of mine once said that e.e. cummings is for deep sixteen-year-olds, and I think he’s right, but I think a lot of us are secretly deep sixteen-year-olds at heart. When I was a deep sixteen-year-old in the flesh, I would stay up late and sit on the floor in front of the full-length mirror in my closet and read e.e. cummings out loud to myself. The revelation that cummings was not actually very difficult once you read him out loud was a pretty important one for me.
Emily Dickinson, Selected Poems — A boy gave this to me for my sixteenth birthday, with a bunch of artifacts inside keyed to specific poems — pictures, magazine clippings, a necklace. Most of them are still in there. Years later, I would write a paper about death and the void in Dickinson, and decide that this gifted edition presented a pretty heavily edited view of her work.
Allen Ginsberg, Howl — Sooner or later, every poetry-loving teenager gets ahold of Howl. I was fortunate enough to have access to my mother’s legitimately-70s copy. Later, I would name one of my notebooks “The Sunflower Sutras.”
Joy Harjo, A Map to the Next World — I read this book in college under my favorite tree on one of the first warm days of spring, and cried like I was waking up from a terrible dream. Just a few days ago I was reminded of that experience and I picked the book up again, and I had trouble figuring out what had moved me so deeply. Harjo has some interesting things to say, for sure, and I’ve always been interested in myth, but I think it must have been a confluence of circumstance that made me love this book so much back then.
H.D., Trilogy — I have now written four separate papers on this book for graduate school. Every time I re-read it there’s something new to pay attention to.
Lyn Hejinian, My Life — This is one of the books I wrote my senior honors thesis on, and I read it six million billion times. I circled all the repetitions and keyed them together by page number, I underlined any time she seemed to be saying anything about the composition process, and I came to love parataxis above all other literary devices.
Yusef Komunyakaa, Neon Vernacular — I read “Woman, I Got the Blues” to basically everyone who will let me. You have to yell the “sweet mercy” line pretty loudly and sincerely to get it right.
Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Bedecker — I was on a date with a guy ten years older and a million times cooler than I was, and I took him to one of my favorite little bookstores in NYC, and he pulled this book off the shelf and said “if you buy this, I guarantee that you’ll be ahead of the game in your next poetry class.” And he was right; Loy was assigned to me just a few weeks later, in a modernist poetry class I took my senior year. I had already read it and fallen in love with “Songs to Joannes,” which remains one of my favorite ambiguous-love poems of all time.
Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary — This was it; this was the book that I was reading when I decided “this, right here, is what I am going to do with my life.”
Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems, A Bilingual Edition, ed. Nathanial Tarn — Really, what I loved the most in this volume was the Viente Poemas de Amor. I read my mother’s copy so many times that the binding fell apart, so she didn’t mind too much when I stole it and brought it to college with me.
Sylvia Plath, Ariel — I am allergic to bees, and hence pretty afraid of them. My most vivid memory of this book is of being so unable to put it down that I took it to the dorm kitchen with me to read while making dinner.
Adrienne Rich, The Fact of a Doorframe — I first encountered Rich through one of her more recent books assigned in class, but it was this “selected poems” volume that really had an effect on me; watching the arc of her career as it developed was incredibly interesting.
Leslie Scalapino, The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence — My most vivid memory of reading this is of lounging around on the quad in the sunshine while a tour group walked by, and thinking to myself, “The scene of me reading here only looks idyllic. If they could see inside my head or even just onto this page, boy howdy would they get a different idea.”
Juliana Spahr, Fuck You – Aloha – I Love You — I read this book at the beginning of a five-hour bus ride, and then I read it again, and then I read it again. It was like watching the same tower be built, unbuilt, and rearranged over and over again.
Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons — The professor of that landmark poetry class I took in college gave us the first few pages of this on the first day of class, and I thought he was out of his mind. Over the next few weeks, though, I realized that he was right, and this stuff was incredibly interesting. Furthermore, when I read the whole book, I was surprised to find that it was downright hilarious. Now that I’m a teacher myself, I too start my poetry classes with Tender Buttons. (And Shakespeare, and Christian Bök’s aural ravings, and I ask my students whether each of these three objects count as poetry and why.)
Rosmarie Waldrop, Reluctant Gravities
Rosmarie Waldrop, The Reproduction of Profiles – Waldrop instantly became my favorite living poet when I read these two books, and she remains so today (her other books are great, too). I think she is the only person in the history of the human race who has successfully solved the mind-body problem.