June 29, 2010

The Humanity of Hacks

Thomas Hardy had a genius for inventing characters. He did this in a way which bucked the trends of the time. While his contemporaries were creating characters by mixing flaws and virtues, Hardy created characters by their inconsistencies and contradictions, presupposing that no woman was purely an agenda or a prayer book, no man was only a monument or a villain. For Hardy, humanity was about struggle: self-defeating behaviors, rallies, and relapses, and the only truly wicked thing in the world was a prudish, mechanical society that expected a demure, dispassionate consistency, as inhuman as it was impossible.

Your average hack writer, your Crichtons, Koontzes, and Baldaccies, are hacks because they are only capable of producing two characters, rigid in their consistency, both of which seem inhuman as a cartoon, insipid as a corporate mouthpiece.

The first, and most common character, is the stoic. The stoic, tortured by some personal (and unarticulated) calamity, generally involving the death of a spouse, child, parent, or partner, is portrayed as silent and indifferent except for, perhaps, a crude obsessiveness that likely takes the form of an urge for revenge or “redemption.” The unemotional facade of the stoic is meant to imply an ocean of turmoil and complexity churning just beneath the bland, steely-eyed surface. But the stoic’s actions, their few words, their revelations, and their “redemption” lack any individuality, any psychological consistency, any humanity. The stoic is merely a mechanical device, a conduit through which the plot moves.

The stoic depends on the reader to supply the emotional details, and this is why the stoic is always defined in the context of some generic human calamity. The hack presupposes that death is meaningful, or that suffering, being universal, is universally understood. This is, of course, at odds with the purpose of art: to expound upon our understanding of the human experience and condition. The hack spends all his time explaining the simplest of things, what happened, leaving it to the reader to supply the infinitely more difficult why.

The second hack character is the sentimentalist. The sentimental character is just as devoid of humanity as the stoic, but as opposed to being emotionally white-washed, the sentimentalist is sopping with emotionalism. The sentimentalist often stars in stories that turn on relationships and romance, and can be defined by the purity of their moods, the simplicity of their revelations, the tidiness of their desire. If the stoic is making a feint for humanity by concealing, the sentimental character feigns humanity with an excess of exposure and emoting.

Sentimentality is often confused with fondness or nostalgia, but a better definition of sentimentality would be selective emotionality, selective memory. Sentimentality is socialization made flesh and blood; that big phony that we sometimes become at a fancy party or a family reunion is the heart of the sentimental character. The sentimentalist will inevitably be “redeemed” by some absurdly simple maxim: follow your dreams; believe in yourself; forgive and forget.

Both characters almost always enjoy a succinct and crude redemptive moment. The stoic breaks down crying that his son’s death was not his fault; the sentimentalist is able to like herself without the love of a man. These revelatory moments are so potent and attractive in their simplicity that the human reader/viewer will feel a sympathetic elation, an experience not unlike a sugar-rush. But the elation we feel turns to depression when we find that the revelatory moment, the character’s redemption, is unadaptable to our experience, our life.

Hack writing is a rewarding read because it whispers the familiar, preferable, simple lies of what it is to be human. It is as addictive as it is, in high enough doses, deadly. The hack has a singular talent for making me a stranger to myself, turning me into the Great and Powerful Oz while my true self hides behind the curtain: a shriveled and humiliated old man.

June 21, 2010

The Absurdity of Violence

This post is a little out of character for the blog, as it has nothing explicitly to do with poetry or writing. It is, however, partially the product of many years spent studying and teaching Wilfred Owen's "Dulce Et Decorum Est."

Violence is the manifestation of the absurd. If one watches a Three Stooges short, Five Corners, and A Clockwork Orange in succession, one could be forgiven for thinking that violence is a amoral comedic form. Furthermore, the “realistic” violence of military epic films is easily parodied by action films, cartoons and creature features because the violence of the original is absurd. The sentiment that is drawn out of us is often changed by the context of the violence we are exposed to, but this effect is a product of our socialization; violence is still quintessentially absurd.

Absurdity may be defined as the disruption of human integrity, order, and reason. The Amazon jungle is not integrally absurd, but may appear so to a New York socialite dropped out of a plane. Violence is absurd because it breaks the order of the body and the emotional and cognitive integrity of the victim, and it is absurd because it breaks the civic order, the rudimentary agreements of coexistence. Furthermore, the violence enacted by the individual is felt by the society, and vice versa. By way of analogy, when a father physically abuses a child, the entire order of the family is disrupted.

When a society begins to feel threatened by films, books, cartoons, and video games which reflect the absurdity and mindlessness inherent in violence, it is because the society has invested much into legitimizing and moralizing violence. Put another way, Grand Theft Auto makes the hearts of American politicians quake because it may be seen as a scathing parody of America’s domestic and foreign policies which rely so mightily on the mystification of violence.

There are many political and cultural factions which attempt to organize and legitimize violence. Institutions as diverse as the state, family, and religion have molded violence into a legitimate expression of a reasoned and moral public or individual. Through the kaleidoscope of various ideologies, violence can be alternately heroic, patriotic, passionate, just, and even moral.

At this point, proponents of violence will often trot out the epitome of righteous and responsible violence, World War II, arguing that violence is required to stopper greater violence. In response to this I would first say that World War II has been white-washed with moral simplicity; broad historic strokes have been used to cover individual acts of violence in an effort to dehumanize some of the victims of violence.

Secondly, we should recognize that war attempts to preserve one order through the disruption of another’s order. War is a contest in which the goal is to be the one who gets to define and sanction the absurdity or murder, rape, and the mutilations of body and spirit which proceeded. The violence on either side is made no less absurd, regardless of the virtues later applied. The order that war aspires to preserve is made absurd and irrational by the act; enlightenment is not the profit of bombs.

This is important to understand because domestic and urban violence, though enacted by an individual, is often perpetrated on the mistaken belief that violence can beget meaning and order: a woman can be taught by abuse, a man can rectify a slight by murder, one can establish one’s virtue by fighting. But destroying someone else’s order, physical or emotional, does nothing to improve the order of the perpetrator of the violence. As with war, an individual may create a narrative of what the violence accomplished, but the absurdity of their narrative is obvious to outside observers.

When a society attempts to use violence to legitimize, moralize, or organize itself (or its image), it becomes an absurd society: an entropic, disordered collection of contradictions and postures which, unchecked, will cause the society to collapse into fascism or revert to tribalism. Cartoons, slapstick, and splatter-films don’t, as a matter of course, legitimize violence; instead, they are often an expression of dread, a reflection of the absurdity observed in society. We must remember that the parody of violence in games, movies, and cartoons do not enact violence. These media do, however, provide us with an important touchstone for discussing the sanctioned absurdity of a violent society.

This is not to say that violent films and games are not sometimes pornographic or exploitative. Neither do I mean to engage in arguments of what constitutes self defense and the sometimes necessity of intervention. Rather, I mean to say that violence is always an absurdity to the victim of the violence; the order we create to explain the violence is also, necessarily, tainted with the absurd.

June 15, 2010

To the Editor (Part 2)

Some weeks ago I posted one of my poems to this site, "Life is Like a Train." Unlike the other poems posted here, this was a previously unpublished work. By posting the poem, I have made it ineligible for submission to a great majority of poetry publications. The poem has lost its virtue by this very modest exposure.

The existence of this standard policy among the publishers of poetry of not reprinting "published" work is evidence that they misunderstand their present role in the promotion and distribution of poetry. In the past, successful publishers of poetry were most concerned with discovery, unity, and exclusivity: poems were discovered by editors and plucked from obscurity; the poems were bound together into a unified and unalterable artifact; the poems were exclusively debuted to an elite readership of subscribers. But this is no longer a formula for success.

Like the record labels of the last decade, publishers of poetry are clinging to an outmoded system which will invariably result in their irrelevance. In the context of the current internet culture, exclusivity is difficult to ensure; it does not preserve but rather suppresses interest. The unchanging artifact (printed journal) has given way to the viral, the user-altered, the meme, the parody. Discovery has been eclipsed by sharing.

In response to these changes, many journals have created static and often abbreviated electronic reproductions of their print journal, or, if they have gone entirely online, have mimicked the essence of the old pulp and glue fetish by producing a linear, inalterable site. In addition to these "advancements," they've expanded their rules about what constitutes an unpublished work, thereby cementing the hierarchy of publication: print trumps pixel. Online readers, the logic goes, are less legitimate readers, and so online publications are less legitimate works.

Publishers have changed the curtains but have not opened the windows. Accessibility and interactivity are still strangled out. There are exceptions, of course, but the majority of publishers behave as if the community was there to support them and not vice-versa.

Publishers, if they wish to attract readers and writers, must reinvent themselves as a portal, as a place for collaboration and interaction, as a showcase for popular (viral) poems. Instead of discouraging poets and writers from building a readership by posting their work, publishers should encourage writers to self promote; the reprinted/reposted poem will then bring to the publication an already invested readership.

I posted the poem for the simple reason that a couple of people asked for a copy. I prefer to respond to the readers I have at hand rather than to defer to the uncertain courtship of publishers. For the record, I'd do it again and for anyone who asks.

Ultimately, publishers seem to believe that it is their rigidity and rules which attract readers and funds. This is a little like believing people go to the beach to hang with the lifeguards. The lifeguards have a role to play, but it's the beach, man, that gets the people out.

(Read "To the Editor: Part 1")

June 8, 2010

Artificial Intelligence

Every once in a while a new technology comes along that changes the way poetry is written.

The printing press, for example, broadened the audience of poetry in England, formalizing and popularizing what had been, essentially, the courtesan's genre of flirtation and sniping. The press gave the poet access to an audience beyond the court, a means of transmission more reliable than the whisper and the hand copy, and so poems became less conceited and more likely to address cultural and political subjects.

The innovation of the typewriter allowed poets to essentially publish as they wrote, seeing iterations of the finished page emerge as they created. This not only made poets more (self)conscious of the published artifact and the poetic tradition which they addressed, but made them more aware of the poem's presence on the page. It's hard to imagine a poet like e. e. cummings existing before the typewriter, and it's equally hard for me to imagine Emily Dickinson pecking away at a keyboard.

The connections I draw in these examples are, of course, debatable, and none of these developments occurred in an historical vacuum; it may be argued that it was not the keyboard that changed poetry in the 20th century so much as World War II, or the explosion of academic institutions, or the cinema. The influence of technological change is probably miniscule compared to the influence of culture. But it seems common sense that the tools affect the craft.

And the constant of technological advancement has met, again and again, with the same generational suspicion. The young man's progress is the old man's entropy. I try not to think in polarities, good and bad, when it comes to change. I try not to say that autotuned hip hop songs are anti-musical farces written by cynical hacks and piped out the mouths of Horatio Alger-urban caricatures. I try not to then spit on the floor. In all earnestness, dismissal of change is often just fear of irrelevance; as the stock of the young rise, so will my stock fall. It ain't T-Pain's fault. It's these kids today.

So, it is in the shadow of this obese preamble that I finally come to my thesis: Google has changed for many how poetry is written. Google is often used in place of acquired knowledge, acting as a kind of meta-encyclopedia, expressing not only facts but incidentals, influences, and esoterica.

Using Google as a collaborative resource, referencing it during the drafting of a poem, does not expand the accomplishment of the poem, but makes diffuse the voice of the poem. Knowledge gleaned from study and experience expresses itself with a natural and relatable authority. But parroted trivia feels synthetic, and because it does not honestly relate the voice of the speaker, it addresses an audience without a single precedent. The result is a poem (or a story) which requires readers to use Google to reverse engineer the sentiment of the poem. In essence, the reader must use Google to translate the poem into an approximation of the poet's vernacular.

Let me give you a very basic example of how Google might be used in the drafting of a poem. While working on a poem which included allusions to physics, I was hung up on the word "wormhole." As someone who's read my weight in science fiction novels, I was familiar with the concept. Hell, I could've recited a fair explanation of how a wormhole theoretically formed. But I wasn't happy with the word "wormhole," especially in the context of the poem. It sounded bad; it sounded a little too Star Trek-geek. So I googled "wormhole" and came up with a synonym related to the concepts originators: "Einstein-Rosen bridge." Now that had a ring to it.

I added the phrase to the poem, polished it a bit, and showed it to a friend who shared my enthusiasm for the cosmological. Pretty quickly, he spotted the phrase "Einstein-Rosen bridge" and asked what it was. I told him to Google it.

A common piece of advice to beginning writers is that they should never use a word in a poem (or story) that they didn't know before they began writing the piece. Thesauruses are often eschewed for this reason (though they have their uses). Google has provided writers, among many other wonderful opportunities, the opportunity to feign experience and accomplishment with an ease and to a degree never before possible. But in doing so, poets bury their voice. Google gives ready access to synonym, analogy, historical allegory, and more facts than have ever been available to the layman before. It's tempting to be arch and say that Google is the steroids of creative writing, but it's actually more like expensive sportswear. I can spend two minutes and one hundred dollars and buy an authentic NFL jersey, but it doesn't mean I can throw a ball.

Of course, it's not as simple as any analogy. It's not simple because I believe in research, in exploration, in taking on the challenge of the poems I read. But creative writers have to be mindful that their voice, their ingenuity does not lie in the dug-up details, nor the reader's goose-hunt. Googling is not creative. It's deference.

June 2, 2010

The Empty Earth of the News Network

There are few American pastimes more cynical than watching the news cycle, that endlessly unspooling poem which moves from detail to image to joke to familiar cultural trope with such grace. The news, like a poem, is about language, the social baggage of a word, the smirk or smile of it. The news, like poetry, insists that the audience care. We must feel for China, Bangladesh, Chile, Haiti, the Sudan; we must accept the news as a long and human overture, a sewing together of innately noble strangers.

But the news, like much contemporary poetry, does not increase our sense of humanity. Instead, it inflates the unreality in the world, broadening the ghost landscapes of tragedy and misdeed. The world of the news is disingenuous, is full of primary emotions, mollifying repetition, staged reaction. And while we viewers carry around a sense of moral obligation to observe the hourly temple call of the News, and while we treasure the warmth of knowledge and humanity, we are left without focus, or confidence, or a sense that the world outside our usual dog track is substantial or, in its parts, perpetual. How quickly the earthquakes disappear from my neighborhood!

The news is a consumable that is chiefly concerned with being consumed. The news' self-awareness and self-promotion, its ostentatious morality, its comic book format and juvenile sexuality, and its trinity of emotions (outrage, despair, delight) have all been carefully combined to create an intoxicative and addictive product. The news cycle only desires continuation.

Too often contemporary poetry emulates the news, is self-promoting, supercilious, insipid, inhuman. The worst poem makes the world, its crises and glories, into a personal metaphor or gesture. The worst poem reaches into the dizzy, vast atom of humanity, and pulls out, again and again, proof of the poem, praise of the poet. Then, it is as if the world exists to decorate a verse.

What, then, is the point of a poem or the news? To articulate the world? To make it? To persist in and of itself? If we are asked to care for everything, are we able to care for anything at all? The best of poems create the very thing that the news exhausts: empathy and company. While the news alienates with information and ceremonial morality, the best poems reveal the intricacies of our tangled joints. We imagine we are isolated just as the news imagines the world. But our alienation is practiced; it is not intrinsic. We are iterations and reflections of one other. The news is not the world.