March 29, 2010

Hey Buddy, Welcome to Your Life

I have a bad habit, and though I’m not alone in it, I won’t use this space to point any fingers. I write poems that are full of wind. Wind and stars and oceans and little pastures tucked into a mountain scape I have never lived under. I’m writing out the nostalgic world that was. But when I look about me, I don’t see Paris or a knights or grass grown over train tracks. I see a microwave, a fifteen year old futon, and a collection of records I’m pretty proud of.

On a recent night I saw a local production of “Death of a Salesman.” I’ve taught the play many times as a sort of dated cautionary tale, one which eschews values that now seem old hat: live your life; money didn’t make your parents happy; savor the Earth; the world is full of phonies. The moral was even simpler: Don’t be Willy Loman. Don’t be a man talking to himself in public restrooms about his inability to accept disappointment. I like to think that if I had to choose, I’d eat disappointment for breakfast, lunch and dinner rather than risk the ruination that fell upon the dead-bird-inside-a-cage that was Willy Loman.

But I am Willy Loman. I write like I’ve never met myself or my circumstance. I write enormous analogies to avoid modest realities. I ride through these phony landscapes full of forests, and wolves, and giants, disoriented in the dream towns I’ve drawn. I am Willy Loman, and like Loman, I have found that the dream makes me preachy and angry and hound dog. The room I inhabit in the flesh here isn’t much, but it keeps me from falling through the floor and it is temporarily mine. I will stop writing about dragons and oceans.

I am unhappy with this assessment, the implication that the ephemeral is always suspect. Finally, I suppose, it is a question of honesty. It is not necessarily dishonest to write fantastically, or romantically, or anecdotally, or nostalgically, or with uncommon diction. Rather, honesty is the refusal to pass off someone else’s dream as your own. I will not stop writing about dragons and oceans, but I will stop poaching the dreams of the famous and the dead.

Lest there be any confusion: I am not of the mind that confession is analogous to honesty. In fact, often confession is a ruse to distract readers from a lack of honest ideas, sentiments, and descriptions. Confessionalists often behave like sea cucumbers, which when attacked will throw up a portion of their guts, then flee while the attacker is busy eating their ejected insides. Distracting readers with your entrails is not the same thing as engaging them. Just because you show me the body in the bathtub doesn’t mean you’ve said one genuine or true thing. Now I’m pointing fingers. Now I'm Willy Loman again.

March 26, 2010

Painting Out the Poem

The surging interest in pairing poems with visual media isn’t new, of course. Many canonical poets included illustrative elements with their poetic work at one point or another. Consider the examples of William Blake, e.e. cummings and T. S. Elliot. More recently, we’ve seen Paul Muldoon, in Plan B, pair photographs with his poems, and Charles Simic has collaborated with artist George Nama in the creation of two recent collections, Wonders of the Invisible World, and Eternities. Wendell Berry took his turn with his second book November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three. There are numerous other examples of artists and poets working towards a synthesis of word and image, though until recently these collaborations were generally confined to printed books. (There are, of course, examples of poems being presented through film.)

Piotr Florczyk, a poet, translator, and friend, brought the Motion Poem project to my attention. While Motionpoems is not the originator of this viral format, Boss and co. are attempting to popularize the form, employing established talent to give the medium an initial dose of clout.

By combining speech, images, text, and sound, “motion poems” have the potential to show the poem’s complex characteristics. This mode of communicating a poem may slowly affect the way poems are written, with poets becoming more aware of their work’s clarity and organization, and less concerned with lineation, form, and the subtler tropes. If a change does occur it might be similar to the creeping evolution of the stage play to the screen play.

Resistance to this movement seems to reflect the most notable schism in poetry today, namely the one that exists between paper-poetry and spoken word poetry. “Traditional” paper-poets often find spoken word poetry to be a performance, a contest of personality and delivery which lacks substance and subtlety; spoken word poets find paper-poetry to be dead artifacts, a precious and elite riddle. (There are crass generalizations, I know.)

The trouble (and wonder) is that the poem is amphibious, is at home both in the mouth and on the dry page. Some days I feel that the poem is more a fish, other days it seems more a snake. But perhaps the poem is better described as an eel that spends most of its life moving between the water of the mouth and the land of the page.

Motion poems are not innately superior to the page or the recitation. They have the ability to obscure or reveal the poem, but what excites me most is that the movement seems to respond to a change in how much of the public prefers to experience creative works. Motion poems presume that poetry is durable and malleable, a fact which is easy to forget during the often fragile process of their creation.

March 22, 2010

The End of the Everything Hour

First Vaudeville, then the variety hour disappeared from the American cultural landscape. The entertainment industry discovered the benefit of specialty and of identifying consumer markets for advertisers with surgical precision. Instead of combining a comedian, tap-dancer, plate-spinner, and magician into an hour-long entertainment olio, a separate venue could be established for each. And so was born the Plate Spinning Network and a million other pigeon holes. Music, film, television, and books became increasingly directed by myopic genres, and viewers/readers became increasingly intolerant of interruptions to their narrow aesthetic. Entertainers became chemists, mixing carefully constructed and tested formulas. Lost were the cross-pollination of the circus act, the creative exchange of the backstage menagerie, the gear-grinding segue offered by the oft-baffled host, and by sparing ourselves the warbling soprano, we have withered the muscle of wonder, stanched the frisson of curiosity, and obliterated the peripheral discovery, the happy accident. Worse, we have confused homogeny with community.

In twenty years the polite introductory question won’t be “where are you from?” but “what channel do you watch?” Physical regionalism won’t be as prescriptive of a personality as where the needle stops on the dial.

This self-enforced categorization has changed the poetry collection radically. It’s expected that a book of poems now will have a clear theme, a narrative arc, a formal consistency, a unified voice. Formula and genre are popular, supposedly, because they infer a readership, but ostensibly the “concept” collection comes with its toe-tag already filled out.

The Variety Hour poetry collection, that motley collection of big personalities and small oddities, is increasingly rare, and its disappearance (or growing irrelevance) has profoundly changed the way poetry is written. When a poet sets out to write to a theme, or genre, or voice, or arch, the concept becomes the product; the poet is writing to a hole in a project and not writing to answer a yawp or heartbeat. Repetitious and incomplete poems, dependent and self-referential poems abound within the smug covers of the concept collection. I have often heard poets write or say that their work has to be experienced in toto, that their individual poems can’t stand alone. I can’t imagine a more feeble position; they are essentially saying, “I must be studied and plumbed to be enjoyed or understood.” Such poems are, in effect, entries rather than entities.

I often argue for poetry for the people, and so I cannot say with any resolve that coherence is inferior to variety, or that universality is better than genre. But our insistence that we produce and present our work in neat categories forestalls a lot of creative influence and experimentation. I want to have faith in my voice and ideas, not in a genre, not in a “project.”

March 16, 2010

The Frank Ages

We’re in the middle of the Frank Ages, an age that prefers directness, sincerity, and a conversational tone over the old formal subterfuges, coteries, and codes. The current popular aesthetic is so assertive that at times it seems merely a matter of course: it is only natural that we are allergic to artifice, pretense, and ambiguity, which are essentially pejoratives now in the same way that "raw," "emotional," and "forward" struck a previous generation as indecent. The vaguely moral sense of permanence and superiority that we enjoy now is caused by our immersion within the Age. Furthermore, despite the bellowing of generational critics and academics, who concern themselves primarily with preservation rather than engagement, and who believe that web culture, including blogs, forums, and social sites, are the cause of this cultural shift, the Age of Frank was not brought about by Sesame Street, Kurt Cobain, html, and Twitter. Instead, these cultural elements are a measure of our immersion within the Frank Ages.

And yet our fascination with frankness does not preclude the existence of secrets, coyness, and deception. Often our frankness is a fog sprawled over the old models of discourse and cultural pollination. Our generation has, it sometimes seems, mastered the art of standing naked in the open without being necessarily naked or open.

I do not mean to infer a dislike of the Frank Ages; I revel in it and experiment with the aesthetic often. And frankness, as an poetic aesthetic, has many tendrils; the three dominate arms of which might be described as follows:

1. Idiomatic Frankness: A casual, open, conversational tone which fosters a sense of familiarity between reader and text.
Idiomatic frankness not only assumes a bond between writer and reader, it also infers equality. Readers, especially "mass-market" readers, are very sensitive to the inference of tone, and the hierarchy (education, class, region) that is insinuated by a non-conversational tone. A clever writer, a sheep-dressing wolf of a writer, can use a popular tone to communicate and explore unpopular or uncomfortable ideas. Poets like Al Purdy, Gary Snyder, and Charles Bukowski strike me as masters of idiomatic frankness.

2. Sentimentality: A preference for direct, clear, and often resounding sentiments; a clarity of purpose.
Sentimentality is often pooh-poohed by writers for the same reason that many journalists squirm in the presence of puns. Sentiment is low fruit, is easy work, is the cheap shot. But sentimentality is more than wistfulness and nostalgia (which are often misapplied as synonyms); sentimentality also contains a straightforward verdict, an explicit purpose. Judgements are generally easier to make in retrospect, and this is perhaps why sentimentality is so often paired with nostalgia, but sentimentality is not necessarily simple or gilded. James Tate, Sharon Olds, Charles Wright (among many others) are examples of poets who could, in places, be called sentimentalists: poets who used sentiments to both focus their work and to implicate their readers in the meditative act.

3. Self Disclosure: The act of divulging elements of one's own life; to make the self the subject.
Self-disclosure is perhaps the most radical and revolutionary of the Frank Age aesthetics. Self-disclosure challenges norms by contextualizing (and humanizing) the alternative; it allows readers to more readily identify the communicative element of the artistic transmission, which is sometimes overwhelmed by its expressive nature; and self-disclosure presumes that while we may aspire to be authorities within the world, we are first the authorities of ourselves, and to never speak of ourselves beggars our genius. Philip Levine, C.K. Williams, Larry Levis, Philip Larkin, and Adrienne Rich all, at one time or another, used self-disclosure in their work.

Of all the elements of our Frank Age, this predilection for self-disclosure troubles me the most. Ideally, writers will use self-disclosure to leap into the world, to draw others in, to expound on the Universal. Ideally, this divestment is not habitual or the result of a kind of high school existentialism. Ideally, the writer does not merely unburden themselves or confess themselves, thereby burdening their readers or ordaining them as confessors. Ideally, the writer does not direct a sad, blue light upon a sad, cold body. Ideally, the writer will not assume that they are interesting just because it is the only area of their expertise. Ideally, poets will not infer that suffering and hardship are revelatory. Ideally, the poet is not impregnating posterity and making us watch as they pitifully hump their way into the immortal imaginations of speculative generations.

Now I'm talking to myself.

March 10, 2010

Lessons of the Ad Men

Ads, especially the ones that appear on television, have become one of the premier American forms of creative expression. We can debate their merit, their agenda, and their ethics, but their efficacy and popularity are established. I’d argue that television ads are essentially product poems, employing analogies and metaphors, images, lyric, narratives, and precise language in a condensed package. From the Alka Seltzer jingle to the absurdist Burger King commercial, ads have been employing poetic modes and elements for decades.

I don’t mean to suggest that poetry is the lone parent of the television ad. Cinema, plays, folk tales, parody, etc. have contributed their DNA to the ad. But the kinship between television ads and poetry is one that is seldom considered. This seems partly because the ad is anathema to art; the ad is a vehicle of corporate propaganda, and unlike art, which promotes discourse between viewer and subject and allows for diverse experiences, the ad is single-minded, unresponsive, and prescriptive.

And yet, the American Joe and Jane is happy to look past the obvious agendas of ads, and discuss, sometimes in great depth, what about the ad is clever, astute, accurate, humorous, moving, etc. Viewer’s share their experience of advertisement with others, and gravitate to other viewers who share their preferences and their reading of the ad, and, just as readers of poetry often do, viewers of ads will recite ads to express some aspect of themselves that they are unable to articulate. This discourse and recitation is neither meaningless nor necessarily shallow, though the product that is invariably exalted as relevant, or required, or corrective is of course empty of meaning.

The success of an ad generally hinges upon its ability to express its understanding of, and sympathy for the viewer. The ad must engage the viewer before it can sucker them. Of course, ads connect to viewers with many unscrupulous, dishonest, stereotypical, and manipulative devices: from fallacious narratives, to the generation of new desires and deficits, the ad gropes after the viewer relentlessly. But as viewers are exposed to more ads, they develop a kind of savvy and an often ruthless critical response to new advertisements, which suggests a level of earnest consideration on the part of the viewer, this despite the mongering of the ad.

Ads pander, they fawn, and flatter, and the efforts of ads have had a marked effect on our cultural psychology, our idiom, our intellectual processes, and emotional expectations. I would not argue that the ad is in any way moral, or preferable, or superior; I personally find advertisements to be gratingly disingenuous. But poets and writers can learn much from the mode and method of the ad, just as the ad men learned from poetry. Successful ads emphasize the engagement of the other over the expression of the self (or product). Successful ads study (or conversely prescribe) human nature and human experience, reaching out to encompass more of the masses even as they bumble with and strike against their own absurdly magnified significance. This is especially interesting as the number of purely expressive ads continue to grow, ads which don’t clearly promote a product but which rather stimulate our attention and curiosity.

Television ads continue to evolve to fulfill, among other things, a cultural need for a common point of comparison and an immediate, studious, and accessible creative expression; this is a role that poets should be fighting for. Unlike ads, poems typically don’t prescribe a specific, physical solution, don’t depend on the reader’s insecurity and conformity to succeed in establishing a connection with the reader. Poetry is capable of offering an alternate cultural touchstone, but to challenge the dominance of ads, poets will need to engage, study, and sympathize with an audience that’s broader than themselves.

March 5, 2010


What follows is a short selection of quotes from an essay by Norman Mailer, entitled “The White Negro.” The essay and some of the conclusions which Mailer draws are flawed, and famously so, and he admitted half as much later in his life. The essay, however, is not without merit, especially those passages which examine the psychology of the Beats, here referred to as “hipsters.”

It may be fruitful to consider the hipster a philosophical psychopath, a man interested not only in the dangerous imperatives of his psychopathy but in codifying, at least for himself, the suppositions of which his inner universe is constructed. [....] the psychopath is a rebel without a cause, an agitator without a slogan, a revolutionary without a program: in other words, his rebelliousness is aimed to achieve goals satisfactory to himself alone; he is incapable of exertions for the sake of others. All his efforts, hidden under no matter what disguise, represent investments designed to satisfy his immediate wishes and desires.

That part about psychopaths is interesting, and I want to come back to it. But first:

What happened to the Beats? Movements rarely vanish; they usually evolve. The evolution of Beat poetry seems reasonably easy to trace: one branch grew into the acid-washed music and associative poetry of the Sixties; one branch grafted itself to the burgeoning (and often bourgeois) confessionalists. I'd go as far as to suggest that the phrase “codifying...the suppositions of which his inner universe is constructed” is a fair, if incomplete, characterization of confessional poetry: a seed buried in the psychology of the Beats.

Mailer draws many connections (some of them patently offensive) between the Beats and the black culture of the first half of the 20th century, particularly jazz culture. He expresses the manner in which young poor and middle-class whites glommed on to black culture, absorbing the rebellious expressiveness of the black “lifestyle” and the “primitive” idiom of jazz. Mailer makes the daft assertion that suffering and oppression enriches a culture, and seems nearly envious of how “beat” the blacks in America were.

The Beats were not vapid or parasitic, sponging significance from an oft-oppressed race and culture. Rather, the Beats constructed identity and did so to a specific purpose. What Mailer identifies as psychopathy seems more like consumerism to me, and indeed the Beats strike me as cultural aficionados, shoppers in the vast mall of the arts and of human experience, which includes religion, myth, regionalism, literature, vice, sexuality, and politics. Their psychology and aesthetic are assemblages, not finished and coherent models. Mailer interprets this as purposeless, as playing in the mud, but it seems that the creative product was the purpose, the means was the evolving model. The Beats created through cross-contamination, by mixing their influences, and they did so, perhaps, to reveal life as a mingling affair, a performance, an experience which cannot be deferred to a church, state, corporation, retirement, or the afterlife. They also seemed to understand the effect of consumerism and the importance and opportunity inherent in managing influences and consumption. If we are what we eat, the Beat logic goes, we should pay attention to our diet. Their chose to consumer elements of culture which were beautiful, ephemeral, complex, and human, which stood in stark contrast to the homogeny which popular culture proffered.

And as much as I argue for poets serving a societal role, I bristle at Mailer’s assumption that artists must serve a radical or revolutionary function to be socially relevant or culturally responsive. Mailer conveniently overlooks the social purpose present in much of the Beat’s work, from “America,” to “Smokey the Bear Sutra,” to “Junkie.”

Mailer too infers that the Beats were ultimately doomed by their infantile psychology, which he believed made them susceptible to, among other things, totalitarianism. This cynicism ignores the evolution of the movement, but ignores too that their cultural success allowed their work to become a commodity, which inevitably opened the Beats to parody. The specific cultural pastiche behind the Beats became dated; culture moved on, and the Beats became the poet-as-cliche in the later half of the 20th Century. The underlying psychology of the Beats, however, continued to be revived in artistic movements, from Warhol to Grunge music.

March 1, 2010

The Yawp

I propose that we engineer a poetry phenomenon. I propose the Yawp. The Yawp is a brief poem, recited spontaneously in a public space, without preamble, expectation, or explanation. Unlike flash mobs, the Yawp will clearly transmit a thought, emotion, or experience, and will not be an expressive experiment meant to test social or cultural norms. The audience is king of the Yawp.

The Yawp poem should be no more than three breaths, or approximately 10 seconds, in duration. Any longer is an imposition. The content of the Yawp poem must suit the audience it is delivered to, having an easily recognizable sentiment, comment, or point. Since the Yawp is both sudden and transitory, clarity should be prized over conceit. There is no prescription as to the structure and purpose of a Yawp. Successful Yawps will survive; unsuccessful Yawps will be jeered and forgotten.

Individual Yawps have neither a title nor an owner, and will ideally be picked up and repeated by others as one would a toast. The recording of Yawps is encouraged; it is the people’s poem and should be distributed freely through the usual channels. The Yawp is ours; the "I" of Yawps is the universal masquerading as the personal.

Yawps will be more successful if delivered in the arenas and on the occasions with which the reciter is familiar and comfortable. If you frequent parks, Yawp in parks; if you ride on trains, Yawp on the train; if you have a watering hole, Yawp from your stool. Anyone can deliver a Yawp. If you’re shy, recruit an extrovert to do the Yawping for you.

A Yawp, by way of example:

I fall in love like a boy
leaping from puddle to puddle,
blowing up blue sky,
making mud out of water.