Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hip-Hop Lessons for Renato Gómez, part one

This will probably be the post that gets me kidnapped by some record label's ninjas and shipped off to Copyright Guantanamo, but fuck it. Here we go. Renato, my friend, you cannot tell me that you do not like hip-hop and then mention the name Warren G. You must take the following introductory course and then, if you tell me again that you really didn't like any of these songs, then fine, you don't like hip-hop, and I feel very sorry for you.

I myself cannot understand how any poet could be anything other than completely obsessed with hip-hop. Most, if not all, of the best American poets of the last 25 years have been rappers. While poety-poets became more and more grammatically asinine, rappers maintained the importance of statement. As poety-poets abandoned basic things like rhythm and rhyme as impossibly corny, rappers continually found new ways to use them well. As poety-poets got all fake-Marxist-ivory-tower, rappers kept their feet on the street, usually in very expensive sneakers. The result is, or at least was, a responsive, populist, cool form based mostly on the artful use of words. Here, in no order of any kind, are some classic examples of how awesome it is, and I defy you, Renato, to dislike them all.

1. Nas, "NY State of Mind"

When I first moved to New York, I took the train out to Queens and as it came up from under the river I looked over at the Queensbridge Projects and I was so thrilled to be looking at the place where Nas grew up. It mattered more than the Empire State Building or whatever other nonsense. The intricacy of the verses in this song continues to stun me, and I've listened to it almost every week for more than ten years. Crime narrative, gangster shit, basically, but aestheticized by that DJ Premier beat until it winds up cooler than a Jean-Pierre Melville movie. I saw Nas live once and I felt like I went to Rap College.

2. Gang Starr, "You Know My Steez"

The summer this record came out I heard this song 4 or 5 times in a row at every single party I went to. Nobody could believe how great this song was. Another DJ Premier beat, the always-reliable Guru, a really weird THX-1138 video, and "the illest warlock tactics," which are so necessary. The problem with Gang Starr is that it's hard to pick a single song. The album this is from, "Moment of Truth," was the last in a string of 4 consecutive records that were simply incredible, so fuck it, here's "Soliloquy of Chaos" too.

3. Wu-Tang Clan, "Da Mystery of Chessboxin"

This record came out the summer I started smoking pot, two facts that would go a long way towards determining the unfortunate direction of my misspent youth. I would come home, eat everything in the house, think no one could tell I was high, and watch this. Every day. There's going to be a whole graduate seminar on the Wu, obviously, but this remains the best general introduction. Everyone's verse is good, beat's good, and in general this video makes them all seem like the most dangerous, grimy bunch of rap assassin motherfuckers in the history of murder. All of which is good.

4. Ghostface Killah, "Daytona 500"

Thanks to the RZA beats, the first four or five solo albums by Wu-Tang members were all really great, but over time this one by Ghostface, "Ironman," has really stood up. This song's so good even Cappadonna sounds like he speaks English. There are all these skits on this album about how Ghostface is the true and living God who creates all reality with his mind, which sounds about right to me. The man used to have a gigantic gold eagle bracelet, but then he melted it down and had other things made from it. He's also the king of dying sneakers different colors. Blue and cream.

5. Oukast, "Player's Ball"

You'll have to click the link above to see the video, but it's totally worth it to see how young they were back then. This was also in heavy rotation on Rap City when I was a young pothead, and Outkast was really, outside of the Geto Boys, the first of what would be a huge wave of Southern hip-hop. The concept here is pretty basic: everyone's a pimp and it's awesome and they love it, etc. Play on, players, play on.

6. Juvenile, "Ha"

Again, click the link. More Southern stuff, this time from New Orleans. I went there for the first time shortly after this video came out, and we promptly took a wrong turn off the highway and wound up in the neighborhood where this video was shot. Everyone had their doghouses chained to trees and fences. I was amazed at the idea that doghouse theft could be such a problem that a whole community would move against it so aggressively, but New Orleans is like that: full of civic spirit. I was at several parties where this kind of bounce, as they call it down there, was the only music played, and they were the best parties ever. Every time I saw a convertible full of girls standing up ass dancing their way down the street, this was the song they were dancing to. Again, tremendous civic spirit.

And so concludes part one. Coming up in part two, we visit the West Coast then jet back to Brooklyn to pose the question: Gangster intellectual or intellectual gangster?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Shit you can read.

I spend a fair amount of time here talking about things in Spanish that haven't been translated, and that's fine and everything, but there's a bunch of shit that has translated (or even, imagine it, written in English that are totally worth the trouble.

I am, however, feeling really fucking lazy right now, so just imagine you see images, pictures of book covers and things, weird author photos, and everything's linked and I don't expect you to just open another tab and cut/paste whatever name your curious about into a search engine.

Also, it's after 4 a.m. and I just got off work two hours ago, my mental state is about what you'd expect, so this is a totally random list.

1. Joe Ceravalo I bought a selected poems of his the other day and it kicked my ass. Joe was from Astoria (Queens get the money) and seems to get kind of written off as a "second generation New York School poet" which is your fucking loss if you care about shit like that. Most of his work was originally published on Ted Berrigan's C Press, and he took workshops with Koch and O'Hara. Much more abstract than any of those poets. Very light touch.

2. Steve Carey Another New York poet, his Selected Poems came out recently and came highly recommended. Totally awesome weird wry poems that kick up a considerable atmosphere.

3. Luis Cernuda One of my favorite poets ever. Steve Dolph brought me back a Complete Poetry of his from Spain and I'll probably have that book until I die. Cernuda was Spanish, part of "Generation of 27" with Lorca and Vicente Alexandre (who I think won a Nobel) and a bunch of other really good poets. But Luis has it over all of them, as far as I'm concerned, Lorca included. He left Spain after the Civil War there, lived is Massachusetts for a while, hated it, then went to Mexico on vacation once and then immediately moved there. That's when the poems get really good, for whatever reason. There's a lot of terribly corny poetry written about sex and related topics in the Spanish language. Cernuda's one of the only poets I can think of who writes about it well, especially totally hopeless lust. White Pine Press recently put out a collection of Cernuda's poems translated by Stephen Kessler. We had some of these in Calque, and Stephen is a good friend of mine, so I can't really claim to have no horse in this race, but I think the translations are exceptionally good.

4. Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar, translated by Gregory Rabassa I have compared this translation to the original at great length, and read both versions more times than I can count, and I am convinced this is the greatest translation ever published.

5. This goddamn Geto Boys song, which is basically just Scarface going off about how to behave when you're under indictment.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I'm doing a reading on Saturday, in Brooklyn: 298 Eckford, Apt. 1R off the Greenpoint G train, 8PM being the time. The bill looks as such:

Emily Zuch
Hanna Jayanti
Austin English
Katya Tepper
Jake Brower
Maria Doubrovskaya
...and many more....

The Magnificents
Laura Jaramillo
Brandon Holmquest
Pavel Lembersky


There's this facebook invite, if you like that sort of thing.

I've made a fair number of copies of a book. It looks like something I would have made when I was 17. I can't stop laughing everytime I look at it. It's called Electric Blimp. Four poems and one story. Here is a piece of that story:

No hay una pena más grande que una casa sucia

He swung the hammer down and porcelain shattered. Again. Again. Again. The hammer fell and shards of glass leapt up then fell in arcs onto the counter, the floor, and the hammer rose. Again. Samuel swung from his heels. Came off his feet on contact. Hand thrown across his face to shield his eyes.

When it was done the kitchen lay littered with small sharp glass. Every dish in the house smashed except: 1 plate 1 bowl 1 glass 1 mug 1 fork 1 knife 1 spoon 1 pot 1 pan. These were dripping dry, freshly washed.

Samuel stepped back. Let the hammer fall to the floor. The sink: full of broken glass, bent and twisted silverware and knives. How would he get it out of there? He began to question his decision.

It had taken time to find the hammer. From thought to deed, no mere instant. He had searched, drawers and closet, before finding it. There had been a moment: on his knees rummaging violently under the sink, he had thought perhaps this is not the best idea. He had ignored it. But now he was certain: this had not been the best idea.

But it had been necessary to do something. The dish situation, a long standing irritation, demanded to be solved. He would wash them. Then dirty them. Then put them in the sink. And they would gather there birthing a strange grey sludge that filled all small gaps, those between fork tines for example, and clogged the drain. All dishes would need to be removed, the drain cleared, before washing could rightly commence. This would disturb the insect’s nests. The air would grow thick with them. Some sort of gnat or fruit fly in mass exodus toward the sky, their homes destroyed. Clear the drain. Clean the sink. Wash the dishes. Then make dinner. After dinner: dishes in the sink and Samuel would think: he didn’t want to wash them today, he had already chored today, and anyway he had just eaten, wanted to relax, read a book, smoke a few cigarettes, etc. In a matter of days the insects were again laying eggs.

This had often bothered him. He had often felt powerless against it. But today a simple question asked itself: why did he own so many dishes in the first place? There was no answer, and the way forward was thereby glimpsed.

First thought: Donate them to a thrift store.
Problems: The dishes would have to be cleaned. They would have to be boxed up and carried. There were no thrift stores nearby. There was no one to borrow a wagon from. This meant taking the subway. Taking up two seats or the entire aisle. Disrupting the already harrowing commute. For this becoming an object of scorn universally loathed.

Second thought: Put them out on the curb.
Problems: The dishes would have to be cleaned. They would have to be boxed up. A sign would have to be made. Free dishes. This would attract the scroungers. They constantly combed the city in search of just such a windfall. He had seen them. Sad and lonely men, on bicycles with unnatural payload capabilities, in haggard pick up trucks, pushing jalopied shopping carts. They would swarm and return every day, believing the best place to find something free was a place where they’d already found it. If they were out there, milling about, Samuel might feel guilty. He might begin to give away things he needed.

Third thought: Throw them away.
Benefits: The dishes would not have to cleaned.
Problems: In the dumpster, anyone might see them. Garbage pickers, yet more sad than scroungers, or anyone else. They would see perfectly good dishes in the trash and wonder: what kind of a jerk just throws dishes away, why not donate them to a thrift store, or put them out on the curb, why throw out perfectly serviceable dishes? Unbroken dishes?

Fourth thought: There was a hammer somewhere.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

+ Poesía, - Policía, or, The true tale of how Cecilia saved me from the overlong arm of the law

This is something I wrote for the book party for Cecilia Vicuña's new book, V, pictured left. I was out of town, so the ever gracious Renato Gomez, who published the book through the tRpode imprint he runs, read it for me.

I used to smoke in my apartment, in the kitchen, sitting in one weird yellow plastic chair, my feet up on another, reading a book and listening to the Yankees on the radio. Finally, my girlfriend won the argument and I started smoking outside, in the courtyard in the middle of our building. And suddenly I knew my neighbors, I knew what the weather was like, and I got a lot more reading done, because it's hard to follow a book and a ballgame at the same time, especially if the book is in one language, the ballgame in another. More than not minding it, I found that I actually liked smoking outside. I did not tell my girlfriend this. Her response would have surely been, Well, imagine how much you'll like quitting!

It's not even a problem when it rains, since there's a covered passageway about fifty feet long leading into the courtyard. If there happens to be water falling from the sky, that's where I go. I stay dry, my book stays dry, the cigarette gets smoked, everybody's happy. So that's where I was about a week ago, in the passageway, avoiding a light rain, reading Cecilia Vicuña's new book V. I finish the cigarette, put the book under my arm and I'm stubbing the cigarette out against a wall, so I can throw it in the trash rather than leave old butts lying around all over everywhere, when I hear the distinctive crackle of a police radio.

They're supposed to turn those things down when they sneak up on somebody, but they never remember. So I look up and here come two cops, a man and a woman, both somewhere in their early twenties, walking very carefully toward me. And the he-cop says, Excuse me, sir.

Let me just step aside from my narrative here for a moment to say this: I don't like cops. Not even a little bit. They make me very, very nervous. I've had guns pointed at me by cops and I've had guns pointed at me by muggers, and the muggers were less frightening. Pathologize me how you will in light of this information, I offer it simply as background to the incredible fear that seized me at the sight of these two people who, in jeans and T-shirts, would not have drawn a second look.

So, Excuse me, sir, says the he-cop. And I try to stay calm, look casual, and I say, What's up? And he asks me if I live here. I say that I do. He asks if I have identification, I tell him it's inside, in my apartment. He-cop is now very suspicious. He looks over at she-cop, and she's suspicious, too. He-cop asks me my name and I tell him it's Brandon. He says, Can I ask you what you're doing here, sir?

I was having a cigarette, I show him the butt in my hand, And reading a book, I say, reaching under my arm for the book. The cops flinch. Both of them. It was really, really cute. I show them the book. Yeah?, says the still suspicious he-cop, what's the book about?

I tell him it's a book of poems, so it's not really about anything the way a novel might be, but it's...well it's by this woman from Chile named Cecilia Vicuña. I tell him I met her a few nights ago, at this gallery in Soho. I describe her: she's about this tall, she has hair like so, a face like so, a voice like so. I'm basically just scared to death and I can't stop talking, just rambling on, hoping that something I say is going to convince him that I'm harmless-crazy, as opposed to whatever kind of criminal he considers me to be at present.

I show him the book so he can see that it's in Spanish. I say the book's kind of about language and how it works and how poetry and what we call religion now but what we used to call magic were basically all the same thing once. How a long time ago poetry and religion and magic and art and maybe science, too, were all a single thing and that thing was called poetry. I tell him the book is mostly about how poetry is still that single, weird thing, still magical-religious-word-science-art, but we've gotten so used to it not being that, to those things not being the same thing, that we forgot, so Cecilia is here to remind us.

And my hands are shaking, my heart is pounding and I can't really breath I'm so freaked out by these cops, so I just keep talking, about how last year I was working as a proofreader in the Financial District and they gave me this dictionary that had a section in the back on paleo-linguistics, which is when word scientists use modern languages to figure out what ancient languages were like. Specifically one ancient language called Indo-European, which is the ancestor of many, many languages. And these word scientists know that the people who spoke this ancestor language had horses, and lived where it was snowy, and had kings and poetry and that's really all that was known about them when that dictionary was written back in the early 80's. I start talking about how these word scientists have reconstructed the words of this ancestor language, and how in the introduction to the dictionary of reconstructed words it said that every word was originally a poem. Every word was a successful attempt to capture something in the world and turn it into language, and every word became a word, rather than something weird someone said once, because it was a successful attempt. That the magic was that: the attempt being successful, and when that happened it was so amazing that everyone remembered and started saying it and so a word was born. That's how every word was born.

He-cop is looking at me very quizzically now, so I tell him that at that gallery in Soho the other night Cecilia wrapped everybody there in yarn then told us all that the Mayas believed the gods made humans because they wanted to hear some poetry for a change. I say that if that's true, which it obviously is, and if the word scientists are right that every word was once a poem, which they obviously are, then Cecilia's book is about getting back to that moment: getting back to when every word was an awesome piece of magical-religious-word-science-art, the creation of which is the whole reason we're on the planet in the first place. Gods or no gods.

Suddenly I realize I've been rambling on about poetry and paleo-linguistics to a New York City cop for I don't know how long. This seems bad, so I try to swing the conversation back down to earth, to me, and how I'm not insane or illegal enough to arrest. I tell him that Cecilia was nice enough to sign the book to me and my girlfriend, who won't let me smoke in the house anymore which is why I'm outside, and I show him Cecilia's signature, which is more a drawing than a signature, ranging all over the title page, and I point to my name, Brandon, right there in Cecilia's handwriting.

And he-cop has the weirdest look on his face. It takes me a minute to figure out that he's trying not to smile. He's kind of wrestling with a grin and losing. She-cop is openly giggling. And now they're behaving very differently. They're not nearly as suspicious. He-cop apologizes for disturbing me. He says, It's just that there have been a lot of burglaries in the area recently, which is a standard cop lie. I've heard that line at least a dozen times. What really happened was they mistook me for one of my neighbors, one of the guys a little younger than me that hang around the building looking kind of gangsterish, smoking weed and bothering nobody.

But now he-cop is trying to extricate himself from this situation. They're sorry for disturbing me, he says, and they're really sorry but they kind of have to take down my name, if I don't mind, it's standard procedure. He-cop's in a tight spot here, caught between the regulations and his concern that I might go inside and call the ACLU as soon as he leaves. I say, Sure! No problem. I spell my name out, give them my DOB. I even ask them if they want my social security number, but they don't need it.

With all that written down in she-cop's little notebook, they shake their heads, apologize again for disturbing me and are about to leave when, just to be a jerk, I ask them if they want to hear one of the poems. They're really good, I assure them. He-cop laughs like now he thinks I might be more than just harmless-crazy. That's okay, he says, we don't speak Spanish anyway. Thanks all the same. You have a good day, sir.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Highbrids, or The Curmudgeon Chronicles, Vol 2

This recent essay by Ron Silliman and Jonathon Mayhew's Apocryphal Lorca have dragged the idea of American poetry as this deeply divided thing to my attention, more or less against my will.

On the off chance you're unfamiliar with the concept, let me go ahead and ruin your life by explaining it. (Inuit to missionary: If you'd never come here and told me about Jesus, would I have gone to hell? Missionary: No, of course not. Inuit: Then why the hell did you come and tell me?)

On the one hand you've got "mainstream" poets. They tend to be a little precious, sometimes they rhyme, and their poems are often corny and tend to have "wise" little observations, some sort of epiphany, emotions, and/or some type of personal confession. Robert Pinsky is one. So is Billy Collins.

On the other hand you've got the other poets. There's debate on what to call these folks. "Experimental" is sometimes used, as is "avant-garde," and there are other terms as well. Silliman's got a whole vocabulary list but I decline to use his terminology for various reasons. Let's go with "avant-garde" because it's the most problematic, shall we? These poets tend to do the opposite of whatever the mainstream poets do. So their poems avoid preciousness, never rhyme, and eschew epiphany, emotions and confession as though they were contagious. Barrett Watten is one. So is Jena Osman.

Obviously my characterizations of these two camps are broad generalizations. Don't write me letters about Helen Adam or whatever. I know. But, as rough sketches of the general outline, I'd say this is fairly accurate. These two groups have been in state of civil war for damn near a hundred years now. I'd place the start of it in the Ezra Pound/Amy Lowell feud, which by the way is an entertaining story (See Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era).

The mainstreamers are hugely dismissive of the A-Gists, as when Donald Hall dismisses Charles Olson as an imitator-spawning demagogue. The A-Gists are likewise dismissive of the mainstreamers as a bunch of candy-ass hacks. Both sides regularly claim that the work of the other side is "not even poetry." It's a really boring, banal debate which, like most of the conversation around poetry, serves mostly as a way for people to get their pundit on, which is tiresome. Anybody talking about this at all, me included, would be better served by just forgetting about the whole thing and writing a new poem instead.

My feeling is that the division is largely phantasmal. Certainly, there are differences between the two camps. But there are differences between the Republican and Democratic parties as well, and yet somehow some Ivy League asshole is always President, and anybody who's poor is still getting shit on.

Point being, whatever the aesthetic differences are between the mainstream and avant-garde, they're not what gives rise to the conflict, which is really about competition for resources, in this case publication, grants, and teaching jobs. In a word: money. In another: fame, at least the lame sort of fame that exists for poets. One group denies the validity of the other, tries to erase the other, because then all the goodies can be kept for them and their cronies. How fucking boring is that. And anyway it seems pretty obvious to me at least that the net effect of this nonsense is to drive both camps into defensive postures in relation to one another, which backs poetry as a whole into an isolated position in relation to the larger culture. Which is bad for both poetry and the culture. Simply put: it's a Phony War that is a form of marketing, aimed as much at potential patrons as at potential customers. The people that wage it have more in common than they'd like to admit, and like in politics this dialectic bounds the debate, excluding voices and methods that are dangerous to the mutual interests of the two "conflicting" parties.

One of the big weapons in the Phony War is anthologies. It's a great trick. You put everybody you like and agree with in a book, slap "American Poetry" somewhere on the cover, and there you go. I have a mainstream anthology called The Contemporary American Poets, edited by Mark Strand, that pulls this trick. The Donald Allen anthologies and Silliman's In the American Tree do it for the avant-garde.

The Cole Swenson/David St. John anthology Silliman writes about in the linked essay is interesting in its attempt to step over this whoo-ha. I haven't seen the book yet, but I was immediately reminded of what has unexpectedly become one of my favorite poetry anthologies, The Voice That is Great Within Us, edited by Hayden Carruth, published in 1970.

I got the book from my friend Bettina Drew. It was in a box I helped unpack and I was checking it out, started freaking out and asked her where she got it. She says it was the text for a poetry workshop she had (in which Sparrow was also a student) at CUNY in the early eighties. It was assigned most likely by Ted Berrigan, though her recollection is a little fuzzy and it may have been Joel Oppenheimer. But she's reasonably certain it was Ted, who gave assignments from the book like "Pick a poem and write about it."

First of all, corny ass title, right? And Hayden Carruth was hardly a stalwart of the avant-garde. Here are some of his poems, check them out, pretty much textbook mainstreamism, though the man did write a book called Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, which gets him a point in my book. Carruth was an editor at Poetry and Harper's. The book's title is lifted from a poem by Mr. Stuffy, Wallace Stevens. All of which is to say, when I first got my hands on the book, I reasonably expected another Phony War bit of revisionism of the mainstream variety.

I flipped to the table of contents. 1. Robert Frost. 2. Carl Sandburg. 3. Vachel Lindsay. 4. Wallace Stevens. Then, right as I'm about to fall asleep I turn the page and find 5. Mina Loy. HOLY SHIT! Mina fucking Loy, are you serious? Mina Loy isn't in any anthology. Awesome. I mean, it's only two poems, but two poems is better than be totally forgotten, no?

And that's basically how Carruth's anthology works. It's full of the usual suspects from both the mainstream (Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath) and the avant-garde (Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Louis Zukofsky). This in itself is remarkable, since every other anthology is one or the other. But then the book is also full of people who are doubtless avant-gardists, but who the avant-garde itself often overlooks, leaves out, or ignores. Like Mina Loy. And Lorine Niedecker.

Which raises what is, to me at least, an interesting question. There are all of these "forgotten" avant-garde poets who have had collected poems published in the last ten or fifteen years. Mina and Lorine. Stuart Perkoff. Helen Adam (great book, edited by Kristen Prevallet). Jack Spicer. Etc. But, who's doing the forgetting here? It's implied in the discourse that somehow the mainstream has forgotten these people, but how can that be, if the mainstream never gave a shit about them in the first place? It was avant-gardists who were into them, and it was avant-gardists who forgot about them and let them go out of print and fall into neglect, often because of petty personal grievances and factionalism. And it seems to take, on average, about three generations for anybody to get over this bullshit and read the poems and say, Oh, this is great stuff, and get it back in print. Then everybody loves it. Or at least acknowledges it.

But back to the Carruth anthology, you've got hand it to the guy. It really is an anthology of American poetry, i.e. poetry written in this country. Hayden apparently understood that he had to include examples of both camps and he did a great job of it. I think half the book is boring, and probably so did Hayden, but that's beside the point. It's an accurate reflection of the national poetry, in its totality. I have a hard time believing that some avant-gardist, given the same job, would have made the same good faith effort to be as inclusive as possible.

The book is, in its way, something of a forerunner of the idea of what Ron calls "Third Way" poetics, which means not exactly mainstream or avant-garde, but not not those things, but maybe something else too. Problem is to even use the term "Third Way" grants this division more validity than it really deserves. Call me crazy, or anything else, but I see this division having a net negative effect on poetry, especially on avant-garde poetry.

In reaction against the mainstream, the avant-garde has been pushed into this area where it's poetics can tend to resemble a long list of "don'ts". Don't rhyme. Don't just left-justify your lines, write like you're using a typewriter even though everybody uses computers now and they don't lend themselves to open-field writing like a typewriter does. Don't have emotions, or at least dissemble the hell out of them. Don't write about yourself, or things that really happen unless, again, you dissemble them a lot. Don't have ideas, have theories. Don't be performative when you read. Don't ever ever ever confess anything.

Snore. Most of this stuff is based on misinterpretations of Olson, O'Hara and Creeley. The rest is just boring, a way for derivative, imitative writers to elevate derivation and imitation as writerly virtues and suppress the things they lack: originality and talent and anything at all to say. And if you do anything outside of this, then they've got to undercut it, name it and spin it so that, while it may be interesting, it's in no way as valid as what they're doing. Oh, "Third Way" yes, isn't that quaint, now back to serious Poetry.

All of which obscures the fact that what thinks of itself as the contemporary avant-garde is in large part the new Formalism, the new New Critics, the new institutionalized academic nonsense that's as boring to me as Robert Lowell was to Frank O'Hara. Anybody with real taste can tell that Robert Pinsky is lame and uninteresting. It does not then follow that some contrived anti-Pinsky will be interesting.

What's interesting is someone off the scale, like CA Conrad, for example. Someone who writes really, really well, like Eileen Myles or Frank Sherlock. Somebody totally unexpected, like Dan Sociu. Somebody who lives in the real world, like Ryan Eckes or Laura Jaramillo. And yes, these are all my friends, and they're my friends for a reason.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Revolution Time

Twenty years ago my dad woke me up in the middle of the night. We were living in Missouri, alone together in a dirty brown trailer. The trailer park was called, with that picturesque necessity, Blueridge Estates. It had room for maybe twenty trailers, but contained only six, the empty space given over to weeds and empty beer cans. Point being: American poverty bleak. And he woke me up and he said, You've got to come see this.

If I asked him now why he did it I'm sure he'd say something blahblah freedom democracy Ronald Reagan. But that's not how it was at the time. At the time I doubt he had any clear idea why he was waking up his almost eleven year old son and dragging him into the living room to watch the Chinese Army put down the Tiananmen Square revolt. What he said at the time was, It's history, you've got to see it. All-day all-night news that enabled you to see such a thing as it was happening was still a relatively new thing back then. We were all pretty impressed that it even existed.

So I got up, and I watched an army murder nonviolent protesters in a public place in full view of many cameras and a worldwide audience.

It's odd to think back on that period in history. There were a few years there were there was something like a revolution on TV every day, happening all over the world. I don't have the chronology straight in my head, can't remember what order it all happened in. Poland and Germany and Czechoslovakia and China and Romania and Russia and so on. Some of them alarmingly easy, in Germany they just tore the fucking wall down and there it was. Some of them incomprehensibly tangled, Russia with the attempted coup, Gorbachev under house arrest, the parliament building under siege and then Yeltsin, drunk on top of a tank, fist in the air. Some of them were violent, as in Romania where they shot Nikolai Ceausescu and his wife live on national television. And China, which was just a goddamn plain and simple tragedy. My dad woke me up every time and we watched every one of them on CNN.

This was when I first realized that there was such a thing as the world, the first time I really understood the reality of other countries as actual places. Before this the world had been basically what I could see, the places I'd been. It was also the first time I understood the idea of a government. Needless to say, these were decisive experiences for me, a redneck kid from Nowhere, Indiana living in Nowhere, Missouri.

As time has passed and my dad has settled into his Missouri Republican persona, he has come increasingly to see (or to say he sees) these events as the heroic actions of Ronald Reagan in defense of freedom democracy blahblahblah. Well, I watched the Berlin Wall come down on live TV and Ronald Reagan was not there. A lot of ordinary Germans were, and I'd imagine that they'd all be surprised to learn that they were merely agents of the star-spangled Reagan will.

The legacy of these events has hardly been as pure, free and heroic as my dad would like to think, anyway. To my knowledge there was nothing like the modern sex trade in Eastern Europe before Communism fell, for example. China, of course, has totally changed since Tiananmen Square, morphing from a classic Stalinist police state into a classic capitalist police state with Communist design tropes. Not long ago I saw an episode of Frontline where a reporter showed some Chinese college students in their early twenties the picture of the man standing down the tanks the morning after the army cleared the Square. None of them had ever seen it before. None of them will ever see this post or any other writing about that event. China has secret policemen in Tiananmen Square today opening umbrellas in front of news cameras.

That Frontline episode was called Tank Man, it was a history of/attempt to find out what happened to that guy in the picture. My money's on dead that same day. I can't even think about that guy without getting weepy. Fuck Ronald Reagan. Give me the Tank Man. Attaching the word "hero" to a guy like Reagan, who was a mass murderer, strips it of all meaning. So what do you call the Tank Man?

I don't know, but I do know that my dad has spent the last twenty years wondering why his son turned out to be such a godless commie liberal blahblahblah. Hey dad: it was all the revolutions on CNN late at night. It was the goddamn Tank Man. I wanted to be that guy when I grew up. I still do.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Party over there, as opposed to here

Clicking here will take to you to a fabulous party that represents all the effort I can muster right now. A book review. A poem. Both long. I'd say sorry to the haters but really, why?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Case of the Missing Communism

photo by Tina Modotti

Lately I've been reading a Mexican writer by the name of José Revueltas, and it's got me thinking, again, about The Case of the Missing Communism. Revueltas was a big time Marxist, to the extent that he was held to be one of the main people responsible for 1968 in Mexico, and jailed accordingly. I recently read his novella El Apando and right now I'm about halfway through a novel called Los Días Terrenales. Not surprisingly both books are pretty heavy on the Marxism, and both are extremely good.

Simply put, Revueltas could write his ass off. He was the exact contemporary of the big Latin American "Boom" writers (Cortázar, García Marquez, etc.) and easily as talented as the best of them. A serious prose stylist; page after page of beautiful prose. Yet not one of his books has ever been translated into English. You have to ask: why is that? The answer, of course, is that he was a big time Marxist.

Revueltas is only one of a long list of Latin American writers whose politics has kept them under- or untranslated. The Stridentists (Mexico), Hora Zero (Peru), the Infrarealists (Mexico), the Nothingists (Colombia), Techo de la Ballena (Venezuela), the neobaroque writers (mostly Argentina), I could go on and on with this list: all of them serious writers, serious leftists and seriously unknown in this country for that very reason.

Even Julio Cortázar had problems with this. He's known in this country mostly for his stories and for Hopscotch, but his work from the mid-60's on is really hard to find in English. Not coincidentally, it was then Julio became very seriously committed, politically. Almost all his work after Hopscotch is in some way shaped by his political ideas, such as his novel Libro de Manuel, which was actually published here in Gregory Rabassa's translation and immediately went out of print, where it remains. Other work, such as his book about Nicaragua, never appeared here at all.

My first thought on this was, Well there's never really been much of a market here for Marxism. Then I looked at my bookshelf, which is full of English translations of Russian and German and Italian and French Marxists. It would seem that European Marxists have little to no problem finding publishers, but Latin Americans do. I find this interesting, to say the least.

Of course, we've spent a lot of time and money down there in the last 50 or 60 years killing Marxists and people who might maybe sort of be sympathetic to Marxists, so it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to be gunning them down with one hand and selling their books with the other. Then there's the unspoken fact that very few people in this country think that Latin America is on the same level, intellectually, as Europe. Somehow anything in Latin America that resembles anything in Europe is considered to be a copy, an imitation, as opposed to original and/or equal.

There's a lot of quasi-orientalism directed towards Latin America, for a reason I simply can't understand. Example: Alma Guillermoprieto put out a book of her reporting from around Latin America. The title of Spanish edition translates as I'm Writing You From the Foot of a Volcano, which is a much better title than that of the English edition, The Heart That Bleeds.

Our view of the cultures and countries that make up the region is extremely reductive and more or less imperialistic. And it's the so-called "cultured" people here, the "liberals" who are largely responsible for it. We don't have a problem just omitting a huge part of their culture because it happens to be inconvenient for us, which is what happened to that missing Communism.

This is exactly why Bolaño seemed to come out of nowhere to a lot of people here, who weren't even aware there were realists in Latin America, let alone the four or five generations of Leftist realists Roberto was drawing on. Cesár Aira is another guy who suffers from this information gap, though slightly less so due to the nature of his work.

All of this ultimately means nothing except that we screw ourselves out of a lot of great writing and a lot of interesting ideas, for reasons that can't stand up to even minor scrutiny. When the Nobel Committee says we're "isolationist" this is the kind of thing they're talking about, to some extent.

Don't look for this to change anytime soon, though. Most publishers would consider a book by a guy like José Revueltas as simply too old to bother with, in addition to being more or less irrelevant. And with the economy still in flames they're getting more and more cautious and conservative. Though if anybody wanted to read some interesting stuff, I might be able to tell them where to find it if they got a hold of me...

Friday, May 1, 2009

More Poetry, Less Cops

photo taken in Colombia by Luisfer Jaramillo, dedicated to Laura

I'm reading in Philadelphia as part of Abbi Dion's Wine-O series, with a slew of other people including Hailey Higdon, whose poems are crazy good. Here's the specifics:

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Begins at 7:30 SHARP!!

447 Poplar Street
Philadelphia, PA

Brandon Holmquest * Isaiah Thompson * Hailey Higdon * Donald Deeley * Joshua Rosenzweig * Phil Mahoney * Abbi Dion * Frank Fucile * Mike Buckius * and Mike “Rock me like a Hurricance”

I'm planning on reading my new series, "Like the hands in Egon Schiele paintings" which I wrote in March. Here's the first poem in the series:

When I grow up I want to be Leonora Carrington

I bet, wherever you are right now,
you're drinking some rapper's vodka,
having a laugh after another
minor accident.

It's ten years ago,
cardigans and clarinets.
I'm in Minnesota, you
can rent me. I'm teaching
awkwardness at the
Iowa School for Nerds.

We'd have gone all the way if I hadn't thrown up.

I was already balding,
reading in bars, bright
turquoise t-shirt
with the Eiffel Tower on it.

Somebody named
a martini after that shirt.

I'm gonna wind up
drinking scotch,
on the rocks, reading
book reviews instead of books,
going outside every so often
to smoke a metaphor.

It's Halloween,
I'm dressed as a puppet,
another metaphor.

Remember blue hair?
Remember we spent all day
staring at the reproduction
of Nude Descending a Staircase
Joey's parent's had
hung above their staircase?

This place is a shithole.
I should have said: Keep driving.
Don't stop. Don't even
slow down. I'll puke
out the window if I have to puke.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bea (st) (uty)

Up to about a month ago, I was sure that no piece of writing could genuinely shock me. I was so sure of this I wasn't even aware that it was something I thought. I knew it in the way that I knew that night follows day, water is damp, etc. I was also wrong, and the man in this photograph proved it. That's Osvaldo Lamborghini. He was born in Argentina in 1940 and died in Barcelona in 1985. In 1966 or 1967 he wrote a story that may also be a poem called "The Proletarian Boy." About a month ago I read it and it took me two weeks to recover.

The piece begins with a rough sketch of the life of the average proletarian boy. It's funny in a grim way. The boy's father is always beating him with "a beatchain," for example, and everyone is drunk and miserable and poor. In the middle of this the narrator says, "I congratulate myself for not having been born a worker..." There's some more description of the proletarian boy's life, then the narrator says that there was one in his school, and goes on to describe the hard time said proletarian boy has there. Then there's a page break.

The second part of the piece shifts from the general to the specific. The narrator and two friends see the proletarian boy coming toward them. They stop him and start to beat him up. What follows is a long sequence in which the three "bourgeois boys" violently assault and rape the proletarian boy. They push him in a ditch, slash his face and slice his anus with a piece of glass, and it gets worse from there. While the first of the three boys is busy raping the proletarian boy, the other two stand aside and watch and eat each other's vomit and shit. Then they take their turns. That done, they strangle him. The End. Total length of about 4 pages.

The sex and the violence in "The Proletarian Boy" are so extreme that they can hardly be described. It is an orgy of the darkest, most disturbing variety, and it comes out of nowhere and takes the whole piece over. I read it and there I was: shocked, really scandalized, and then I read it again. I had to.

Cause here's the thing: as disgusting as it is, "The Proletarian Boy" is a great piece of writing. Lamborghini's talent is immediately apparent and undeniable. He is a great stylist, a skillful manipulator of both his reader and his material, he is funny as hell and it is obvious that he is doing something more than simply trying to shock the reader with violence or homosexuality. Here's his response to an interviewer from the journal Lecturas críticas, who asked what he was trying to say with "The Proletarian Boy":
I was trying to say things like: why should I come out like an idiot and say that I'm against the bourgeoisie? Why shouldn't I manifest what bourgeois discourse would be and carry it to its limits? What would be compromised?

And a little further on in the interview he elaborates on the, literary, reasons for the murder:
Western culture consists of killing a child; everyone's thinking all the time about how to kill a child.

Since I read that first piece of Lamborghini's, I've read another story ("The Fjord"), a handful of poems, and an unfinished novel (Tadeys). The quality of the writing is always very, very high. The other work, especially Tadeys, is extremely funny, though I doubt that I can convey exactly why or how. Here's a list of things that happen in Tadeys, all of which are, I swear, hilarious in the context of the book.

1. A man anally rapes his wife to death after she confesses that she has, for years, been laboring in secret to turn their son into a woman, doing such things as repeatedly referring to his anus as his vagina while he was bathing.

2. Two local officials, a psychiatrist and a prison warden, team up to solve the growing problem of violent young men committing crimes. Their solution is to take a spare oceanliner that's sitting in the harbor and transform it into a "womanizing ship." The young thugs are brought on board, raped for a week straight, then otherwise manipulated psychologically so as to literally turn them into women. This endeavor is phenomenally successful. The local men fall instantly in love with "the little ladies," so much so that no one minds that they all still have very small penises.

3. Jesus Christ is sodomized at his own request and loves it.

4. A rich old man has a fetish: he likes to ejaculate in young women's hair immediately after they have washed it. This gets him in trouble, so a relative steps in and buys the old man a private brothel where every type of hair in the world is represented. Problem solved.

5. A man walks into a room to talk to a friend. The friend is busy fellating a homeless person. The man sits down and watches. When the friend gets done, the three of them sit around and talk. The homeless man is named Bummy.

All of this takes place in a country which is bigger than China called La Comarca. The country's biggest industry is the raising of an animal called a tadey. They look a lot like humans. They are eaten. They are also widely used by men as sex partners, because they are "the most sodomite of animals," and also have a second tongue in their anus that they use to great effect at the decisive moment.

The presence of such an animal has influenced everything in La Comarca, the economy depends on them completely, possession of the wealth derived from the tadey trade separates the classes, the fact that everyone has sex with them has loosened taboos on homosexuality, almost all the men in the book have homosexual sex at some point, though most of them also denigrate their partners with an astonishing variety of slurs.

In other words: the book is set in a country founded and functioning on the basis of the hypocritical exploitation and murder of dehumanized homosexuals. Put that way, the subtext in Lamborghini's work (which is everywhere buried under piles of irony, never spelled out or simply stated) becomes a little clearer, and with it what he's doing, intellectually.

It seems to me that Osvaldo was, by the end of his life, out to synthesize Marx and Lacan. His definition of the word "proletariat," a word which comes up again and again, is a very broad one. Not just workers in the old school sense, but all exploited people generally, especially homosexuals. His obsession with Lacan has been well noted, and informs his use of sex throughout his writing. He is constantly radically scrambling all categories of identity, especially gender, through the use of extreme forms of sex. Osvaldo is most reminiscent of De Sade and Bataille, especially the former. Osvaldo is the only writer I know of who can match, and sometimes surpass, the old Marquis in the sheer joy he takes in transgression. Which is what makes Osvaldo so much fun to read.

Unfortunately, if you don't read Spanish you're out of luck for the time being. We had a few of his poems in the latest issue of Calque, though nothing very racy, and there were a few poems in another small journal last year. That's it, as far as I know. At least for now.

The question is: will any American or British or Canadian publisher be willing to publish this stuff? I would tend to think probably not. This kind of writing will put a picket line of Christian nutjobs outside your door, but even beyond that I have a hard time imagining some publisher reading a fifteen page sample of this stuff and being anything other than horrified. I guess we'll see.

Lamborghini's last work was an immense cross-genre project called Proletarian Chamber Theater composed of writing, collage, painting, just everything. It was, like all of Osvaldo's work, put in shape by Cesár Aira and published a few years ago, in an edition of 300 copies selling for 130 Euros a piece. What is that, $250? Yeesh. If you click here and scroll down you'll get the best look at it any of us are ever likely to get.

Friday, April 17, 2009


1. I would like to take a poem written in English, translate it into another language, say Spanish, then from Spanish into French, from French into German, and so on, through nine versions in nine different languages, ending with the tenth and final version being a translation back into English.

2. I've been on a Andrei Tarkovsky binge lately, just finished watching one of his movies a few minutes ago, in fact. If you have not seen "Mirror" yet please do so now. It is unspeakably beautiful. I read a book he wrote called "Sculpting in Time" recently as well. Very interesting. Full of quotes like "The purpose of art is to prepare a person for death." He talks about art and movies like Theodore Dreiser, I mean he sounds like a "realist" or a "naturalist," art is about examining life, helping people, beginning with yourself, understand where and why they are, etc. Then you see his movies and you expect to see "Written by a hypnotized Robert Desnos" in the credits. What gives? Well, one thing the book showed me is that Andrei was working from a really broad definition of the word "life." At one point he explicitly says that he considers his own movies more true to life than typical Cinema Vérité or literary naturalism a la Zola. And I have to say, I agree. What I like most about his movies is that there's no point in even talking about them or trying to analyze them when you can just watch them again. Hence the binge. This site has a lot of interesting Andrei-related stuff.

3. I was in the mountains recently, in a house full of books and my friend Bettina Drew. She goes to bed as soon as the sun goes down, I stay up all night reading random things. One was a book by Donald Hall called "Their Ancient Glittering Eyes," a title which is so hoaky I almost didn't type it. It's basically a memoir of his encounters with various poets, some of whom he studied under, others of whom he interviewed when he was poetry editor at the Paris Review. I read a long essay about his interview with Ezra Pound in Rome in 1960 or 61. Pretty interesting. Pound was falling apart by then, this was right before the start of his long silent period. Hall and his wife took him out to dinner and Ezra, not wanting to go home yet, took them all out for gelato afterward. Another thing I read was Lincoln's second Inaugural Address, in which he flat out says that 1. God, as in Old Testament God, is and has been punishing the United States for "the evil of slavery" and 2. in this context "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether," and would be even if the war went on "until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword." I know there's a lot of distasteful Lincoln Porn going on lately, but still, if you think about it, that's a pretty intense thing for a President to say, especially at that time, when the war was still ongoing.

4. And while we're in Bettina's neighborhood, she has an interesting essay up at the Missouri Review about her encounters with Ted Berrigan and Elizabeth Smart near the end of their respective lives.

5. This site has everything Van Gogh ever did on it. All the paintings, drawings, letters. All of it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Yolk All Over Everywhere

Get the Fuck Back into that Burning Plane
by Lawrence Giffin
Ugly Duckling Presse
20 pages, hand-bound with letterpress wrap

Here's the thing: I hate theory. Excuse me, Theory. I hate it. I think it's asinine and silly. If you watch the way it plays out over time it starts to look a lot like fashion. The arguments it gives rise to are about as manufactured as the yearly post-season drama in any sport you could name. It's jargon for the specialist, no different from that of banks or governments or insurance companies, designed to draw a line between insiders and outsiders, as well as create a growth market in explanations. It is, in my opinion, far too much recipe and not nearly enough cooking, especially at a time like this, when people need so badly to eat.

About the only thing I can think of that I dislike more than theory itself is theory disguised as poetry, poems that exist solely to advance theoretical ideas and concepts. The kings of this are, of course, the Language Poets (boo!), and their various contemporary imitators. What makes these poets especially fun is that they're all Marxist and shit, they're so down for the Revolution, which is apparently going to be accomplished through the elimination of capitalist syntax and the judicious application of the Fibonacci sequence. They're going to undermine the bourgeoisie, perhaps by stealing each other's car keys or something. These people are tenured university professors. They are the bourgeoisie. Why would my dad, for example, want to hear about what the working class needs to do from some college professor with soft hands? No college professor is going to listen to his thoughts on poetry or teaching, even if he does spend all day theorizing about it.

Predictably, theory answers questions like this by asserting it's own supremacy over things like experience (usually written in quotes, to emphasize its illusory nature), setting up a situation in which only theory can show us the way. And of course our friends the theorists will be there to explain it all, to manage things, so that they work properly, which is very very different from being a ruling class. Pretty convenient.

These opinions have put me in a small minority among my contemporaries, which is fine. I was also unpopular in school, so I'm accustomed to it. My friends who are really into theory regard me as some sort of Magic Savage, while I in turn think of them as Magic Eggheads, and we all get along just fine.
None of the above statements are going to surprise my Magic Egghead friends. I lay them out here for the sake of clarity, so that the general reader will understand the surprise the Eggheads will feel when they read the following sentence: I just read Get the Fuck Back into that Burning Plane by Lawrence Giffin and I really liked it. Eggheads have just exploded up and down the coast.

Poor sweet categorizers, settle down. I'm not having my road to Damascus moment here, but what can I say, it's a good poem. I get the impression that I differ politically with Mr. Giffin almost as much as I do with, say, Newt Gingrich. But you know what, fuck politics. I also get the impression, based on this essay from Jacket that Giffin wrote, that he is a long way from sharing my antipathy towards theory. Shrug. Still a good poem.

First of all, that title is great. It's catchy, yes, and I have an inordinate fondness for the word fuck, but it also sets up the poem very well. When you read it, you are immediately informed as to the poem's basic subject and outlook on that subject.

The poem itself is really interesting. It is extremely political, almost Amiri Baraka levels of politics, where everything the poem is saying and doing is inseparable from its politics, which I'd call a sort of hip, post-Situationist despair, basically how I imagine Guy Debord must have felt the day he shot himself. We are fucked and getting fuckeder. Forever. Fuck it. This obviously makes it difficult to just say “fuck politics” and ignore it, but the poem works for me mostly because it regularly subverts the conventions of this kind of poetry.

Such as by being funny, as in the poem's third section, where the voice of cable news speaks, and what it says is the poem's title. This section also includes a passage where the poem questions Toby Keith as to what he meant to say with certain of his lyrics; “did you really mean to imply / that America is a cage?” This is very funny and beyond clever, taking the poetics trope of “interrogation” about as far as it will go. There is silliness: “I put the Prada in Gucci, / the dada in Susan Lucci.” There is even a pun, in spectacularly appropriate bad taste, which refers to Bill Clinton as “Baal Cunton.” This is a long way from your average, dry theory-poem, however much theory might be in there as well.

Humor can be difficult to pull off in poetry on the page. At a reading, you inflect the lines and the audience will pick up on the fact that you're being funny and laugh. On the page, that's gone and all you have to mimic it is word choice and line breaks. There are various points where Giffin breaks his lines perfectly, producing the same effect that voice cadence achieves in recitation. You can hear the audience laughing from your kitchen. It's very nice work.

Also nice work is the way that all of this humor and playfulness alternates with the more sobering ideas and reflections in the poem, such as “The choice, whether or not to live life / to any capacity is not afforded us.” “Anyone needs a reason to live, / not least of all because there isn't one.” This line of thought, centered in powerlessness, extends through everything, daily life, the personal, the social, even poetry itself, “whoever's moment of clarity through / creative writing that may turn out to be.” Giffin can juggle these seemingly opposed moods, humor and despair, because they are basically two sides of the same coin. They are both rooted in the political ideas that inform the whole poem. As politics, meh, but as the use of a theme to drive a fairly long poem, again, very nice work.

There are, of course, some things I'm not so fond of here. I find the bleakness of the poem's vision a little over the top, implying as it does that human society is something close to a monstrous conspiracy out to enslave the shit out everyone for the sheer sport of the thing. The poem strips the individual of all but the most futile agency in the face of this situation, and implies (along with Giffin's Jacket essay) that any possible solutions will be collective as opposed to individual. Having seen the practical results of this basic Marxist emphasis on the collective over the individual, this troubles me. In the poem's more theory-heavy sections, there is a tendency to use very long words like “phenomenology” that clog up the line.

But most this stuff is personal taste and none is enough to be a deal-breaker, because the work on the whole is very strong. The thing I am most interested here is Giffin's willingness to take on someone like Toby Keith in a poem like this. You're much more likely to read a poem that “engages” some Slovenian philosopher. Giffin puts a nutjob country singer and cable news on trial here, along with capitalism or spectacular society or what have you, identifying and exploring the links between them.

My favorite thing about the poem is the way that Giffin captures, at various points, the insane levels of cognitive dissonance that have defined the word “reality” for as long as I can remember. The way I felt the first time I heard that goddamned Toby Keith song, which is how I have felt again and again in the last ten or fifteen years, is well replicated here. That's important, because it's not the sort of thing that's going to make it into history books, it's too elusive, but it can go into a poem, which can not only preserve it but actually make the reader feel it. I had almost forgotten how that felt until Giffin reminded me, and it's not the sort of thing I feel comfortable forgetting.

By the end of the poem, Giffin has brought the reader to the point of engagement with his ideas. Real engagement. You sit there and you think about the implications of, for example, the passivity that characterizes his descriptions of modern existence. You read the poem a second, a third time. A fourth. You ask yourself and the poem questions. And if, at the end of the day, you decide that you can't really get quite all the way down with him on some of this stuff, you're in a position to make that decision at all because Giffin has reached you with his poem. He has communicated, and there is therefore dialogue. And that's basically what we're after, on both sides of the writer/reader divide, is it not?

Note: Giffin will be reading with Nico Vassilakis at the Poetry Project on April 24th.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

2666 + (n+1) = 0

A couple of days ago I finished reading 2666 for the second time. The first time, about two years ago, I read it very quickly and it was like being run over by a car (for the record I have in fact been hit by a car, three times). Even if you see the car coming, you don't expect to be hit. There's the impact and its immediate, involuntary consequences, rolling over the hood or being thrown some distance. Then a very quiet moment. Then you stand up if you can, not really able to process the fact that you've just been hit by a car. Heartbeat racing, heavy breathing, and a fevered inventory of your various parts. Is anything different? Is anything broken? What the fuck just happened?

Later you play that moment over and over in your mind. The event gradually takes shape as an actual event. It slows down, becomes something that really happened. You start to see all the things you didn't see the first time. The color and make of the car. The moment it became clear that it wasn't going to stop. Maybe the driver's face. You experience your own emotions, feel the impact in detail. Reading Bolaño's novel for the second time was like this.

A day or two after I finished the book, this review by Giles Harvey at n+1 came to my attention, and in turn led me to this review by Sam Sacks and this one by William Deresiewicz. Those are three negative reviews. Obviously there's a part of me that applauds the willingness of all three critics, at a time when 2666 was the Hot Hot Book in the US, to swim against the current. That's not something very many people are willing to do. But, reading these reviews, I felt the same kind of disconnect that I felt when I read Jonathan Lethem's very positive review, for example; a disconnect born of the strange conversation we've been having, in this country, for a couple of years now.

Bolañopalooza, as I have come to call it, is an interesting phenomenon. Or rather, it was one, because I think it might be over, with the requisite backlash already underway. I was already talking about all the odd hype in my first review of one of his books, more than two years ago. This was shortly before The Savage Detectives came out here. Events since then have far exceeded what I thought was even theoretically possible. Roberto eventually reached Paris Hilton levels of hype. I remember, around Christmas, seeing stacks and stacks of 2666 all over town. St. Mark's had an extra guy working whose sole job was to sell that book.

This was a marketing phenomenon, and past a certain point it had less and less to do with the books, and more and more to do with the image that was being created, for the express purpose of selling books, of the dead rebel martyr LatinoBeatnik etc., etc. That image is in fact rooted in Roberto's real life, but when it made the jump to America it quickly lost all connection to reality. The facts of the man's biography, which are well known, were totally removed from their context, Latin America in the 60's and 70's, Spain in the 80's and 90's, and the result was a ridiculous caricature, not a portrait. Simply put, things got out of hand. Expectations were deliberately cranked incredibly high. Unsurprisingly, what followed was mountains of praise, awards, and a handful of dissenting voices, none of it particularly relevant.

As I have said before, repeatedly, a good working knowledge of Latin American history and literature is essential to understanding both Roberto and his work. Without it, you cannot contextualize anything, references get lost, shades of meaning evaporate. If you read Amulet without knowing anything about Tlatelolco or the occupation of the UNAM, that book is meaningless, or worse, it's just a bunch of picturesque gossip about poets. The Savage Detectives is a hell of a lot more interesting if you're familiar with the Infrarealists and other Latin American avant-gardes. The book is much funnier if you know who Manuel Maples Arce and Carlos Monsiváis are. Without that, the satire that is at the heart of the entire idea of roman à clef simply isn't there for you, and the book becomes, again, mostly poet gossip. Now, poet gossip is a fine and amusing thing, but it is not what Roberto was writing. Saying his books are about poets is like saying Apocalypse Now is about a soldier. It's really about the war.

Roberto's arrival in this country was a fabulous opportunity for literary critics to do their jobs, to really explain things to people who really wanted to know. They failed to do so, choosing instead to hold a platitude competition. Then a few people come along and take potshots at the book that inspired all the platitudes. Both sides are simply too lazy to learn what they don't know. Both are unwilling to simply admit that they're in no position to critique the books in the first place. 2666 is the point where all this comes to a head, because there's little to no romantic glamor in the book, no poets to gossip about.

99% of the praise heaped on 2666 can be discarded out of hand. The negative reviews deserve a closer look, both because they're so rare and because they all seem to have been the product of actual reflection on the nature of the book. In all three cases, the major complaint is that, at the core of the book, there's nothing there. Here is Sam Sacks, at the very beginning of his review:
Imagine you’ve traveled to an art museum to see its most famous work. This piece de resistance is immense—it fills a room—but it’s quite unlike other paintings you’ve gone great distances to see. There’s nothing of the detailed majesty of the Sistine Chapel or the jumbled vivacity of El Greco’s Burial of Count Orgaz; it’s not entrancingly lovely like Monet’s Water Lillies and it doesn’t salute you with a harsh shout of anger the way that Picasso’s Guernica does. What you find is a dark room. Not only are the walls painted black, but the ceiling is as well, and so is the floor save for some dim lighting fixtures set into the ground. For the first extremely disconcerting moments you can make out nothing at all but the wide swathes of black paint. Gradually your eyes adjust and you realize that there are figures on the wall and ceiling, silhouettes of people drawn in thin tracery. Hundreds of these figures cover the walls. They outline men and women of all different shapes and sizes, differently dressed and coiffed, but each one seems to face you with an identical expression. When you look even closer you realize that this is because their eyes, what Leonardo da Vinci called the “windows of the soul,” are all blank.
You spend a few more minutes in the dark room of dead-eyed figures—you’ve gone to a lot of effort to see this work, after all, and it’s widely acclaimed as a masterpiece—but you soon feel oppressed and unhappy. When you make your way to the next gallery you are literally blinking from the brightness.
This is the best I can do to describe Roberto Bolaño’s posthumously published magnum opus 2666, a vast, visionary, physically crippling book that is even harder to recommend than it is to read.

That, in addition to being very good writing, is the best summation of the Unbearable Emptiness Theory. Let's compare that to the following, from a 2004 review by Bolaño's friend, the Argentine writer Rodrigo Fresán:
This isn't what I wanted to write. The idea was something else, the plan was different. What I'd proposed was a ship's log of 2666, a reader's diary of Roberto Bolaño's posthumous meganovel. To annotate and compile—like footnotes or commentaries in the margins—impressions, ideas, echoes and even memories. A sort of autobiography of a reader whose life would last as long as the book lasted and, luckily, it was a long book. VERY long. But things didn't turn out like I thought and what I have to say here will take up much less time and space. Because truth be told: I received the bound proofs of 2666 and I started to read—I read “The first time that Jean-Claude Pelletier read Benno von Archimboldi...”—and I didn't stop to write down anything until page 291; until the end of the second part/novel of 2666. And what I wrote down then—in emphatic capital letters—was the following: NOTHING TO WRITE DOWN. NOTHING TO SAY. DIFFICULT TO WRITE ANYTHING ABOUT EVERYTHING. Having written this, I didn't write anything again until I finished the last page, which reads “A little later he left the park and the next morning he left for Mexico.”

These two reviews, Sacks' and Fresán's, couldn't be further removed from one another. In time, in approach, in culture and language, in the conclusion reached. Sacks does his level best to give his impressions of the book, calls it like he sees it, doesn't like it much. Fresán does the same, but loves it. What's interesting is that Sacks, Harvey, Deresiewicz and Fresán all cite pretty much the same things about the book to bolster their arguments. The prose style, the opacity, the long catalogs of the effects of violence, the way all the narratives bottom out abruptly, the very subtle connections linking parts and characters, the way it all leads up to nothing. Fresán thinks it all works, the other three don't. Not coincidentally, Fresán knows many of the things germane to the book that the others don't. He understands this very Latin American book from a Latin American perspective.

This means something very specific in this context. An interviewer once asked Bolaño, “Are you Chilean, Mexican, or Spanish?” and Roberto's immediate answer was, “I'm Latin American.” The idea of Latin America remains somewhat controversial in the region, as it has been for many years. The antagonism is between a right wing that promotes nationalism within the the various countries, and a left wing that is constantly trying to unite these same countries as a way of fending off the US influence which overwhelms them individually. Nationality is a huge preoccupation in Hispanic culture, it's probably question number two after, “What's your name?” with anyone you meet. To answer a question about your nationality as Roberto habitually did, by asserting that he was Latin American, is to take an explicit cultural and political position.

This position is apparent throughout Roberto's writing. It is often rather explicit, as in Distant Star, and it is there, lurking in the background, in 2666 as well. Behind the body count in Santa Teresa is the body count in Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico. Death squads in Central America. People thrown into the ocean from airplanes. Santa Teresa is right on the US border, a fact central to the place and the book. All of which adds up to the implied question: do you see a pattern? And you do, of course, but then Roberto extends the pattern, brings the European critics, an American reporter, a German novelist and the individual reader into it, then it's over. Not a bang but a whimper. You're on your own. No answers.

Which is what Fresán likes and the others loathe, but regardless, the experience of reading the book was, for all four of them, nearly identical. They all felt like they just got hit by a car. And so does everybody else, apparently. I've talked to a lot of people and none of them would say they were enjoying it. Some of them looked like they hadn't slept much lately. You hear the word “monster” an awful lot.

I feel pretty much the same way. I think the book is brilliant. I think anyone complaining about Roberto's prose style is probably a snob and should definitely keep in mind that they're reading a translation. I think it's a lot less unfinished than people think. I think I'll read it again next year, and the year after that. It reminds me of how I felt the first time I saw the ocean, I had to just sit there and let the idea of “big” adjust for a while. It reminds me of how I felt after reading Pedro Paramo. Or after I saw Andrei Rublev for the first time. Or while looking at one of the black Rothkos. Or after a friend of mine was killed. What can you even say?

What can you tell us about your next book, 2666?
Bolaño: Nothing.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Curmudgeon Chronicles, Vol. 1

I've been hanging out with Witold Gombrowicz for a long time now. I discovered him in 2000 or 2001, during a period when I was reading every book from the Writers From the Other Europe series I could get my hands on. His novel Ferdydurke, translated into English from a French (German?) version rather than Gombrowicz's Polish. Little purple paperback with a hideous, Francis Bacon-looking cover illustration. To say that it blew my mind would be a bit of an understatement. When I moved to Chicago one of the first books I bought was a new edition of Ferdydurke, translated (from the Polish finally) by Danuta Borchardt. I proceeded to buy up everything I could find, which was pretty easy when it came to his novels. The prize, though, was the first volume of his Diary, which I came across buried in the biography section of a used book store. Score. When I moved to Philadelphia the only books I brought with me were my Samuel Becketts and my Witolds. Everything else I sold or gave away. I've acquired several hundred books since then, but I keep going back to Witold. I reread one or two of his novels a year, and I often return to his diary, which I have in the three volume edition from Northwestern University Press, translated by Lillian Vallee.

I went back to it again the other day. Laura and I were having another of our endless conversations in which we try to figure out what it is, exactly, about poets that drives us so crazy, and it rang a bell, so out came Witold's diary. In the back, as an appendix to the volume, there's an essay he wrote in 1950 or 51, based on a lecture he'd given in Argentina, called “Against Poets,” which begins:
It would be more subtle of me if I did not disrupt one of the rare ceremonies which we have left. Even though we have come to doubt practically everything, we still venerate the cult of Poetry and Poets and this is the only deity which we are not ashamed to worship with great pomp, deep bows and inflated voice....Ah, ah, Shelley! Ah, ah Slowacki! Ah, the word of the Poet, the mission of the Poet, and the soul of the Poet! Nevertheless, I have to attack these prayers and spoil this ritual as much as I can simply in the name of elementary anger, which all errors of style, all distortion, all flights from reality arouse in us.

Now, I'll grant you, Shelley and Slowacki are a little outdated, as references go. So feel free to insert more contemporary idols, such as Zukofsky and Olson, if you feel the need to. Witold continues:
The thesis of the following essay, that almost no one likes poems and that the world of verse is a fiction and a falsehood, will seem, I assume, as bold as it is frivolous. Yet here I stand before you and declare that I don't like poems at all and that they even bore me. Maybe you will say that I am an impoverished ignoramus. Yet I have labored in art for a long time and its language is not completely alien to me. Nor can you use your favorite argument against me, claiming that I do not possess a poetic sensibility, because I do possess it and to a great degree. When poetry appears to me not in poems but mixed with other, more prosaic elements...I tremble as do other mortals.
It bears mentioning here that Witold had, when this essay was published, already written most of his stories, as well as Ferdydurke and his play Princess Iwona, all of them major works of the Polish avant-garde. To say that he had “labored in art for a long time” is simply a statement of fact. I find the second half of the above citation hilarious. Keep in mind that this essay is almost sixty years old, yet every time anyone today criticizes the way poets behave they are countered with the same weak argument, you just don't get it, that Witold brushes aside here. I'll probably hear this same nonsense from somebody in response to this post. What. The fuck. Ever.
Why then does this pharmaceutical extract called 'pure poetry' bore and weary me...? Why can't I stand this monotonous, endlessly lofty singing? Why does rhythm and rhyme put me to sleep, why does the language of poets seem to me to be the least interesting language conceivable, why is this Beauty so unattractive to me and why is it that I don't know anything worse as style, anything more ridiculous than the manner in which poets speak about themselves and their poetry?

Why, indeed. Anyone still capable of being honest with themselves will admit that such questions as these have crossed their mind. You're at some poetry reading and the whole thing is so ponderous and pretentious and absurd that the paint is peeling off the walls and it's some “famous” poet up there putting everyone through the wringer. You flip over a poetry book and the blurbs on the back are even more devoid of content than a long speech by a politician, pure word pantomime. You read some interview with the Hot New Voice and the whole thing is just trope salad. Gazes are being complicated, places are being interrogated or investigated, gestures are being made through, toward and around this and that. And it goes on and on and everyone just plays along because nobody wants to be the first one to stop clapping for Stalin and you ask yourself, over and over: What the hell is going on here? Witold conducted an investigation:
I conducted the following experiments: combining specific sentences or fragments of sentences from the poetry of a certain poet, I constructed an absurd poem and then read it to a group of poetry aficionados as the new work of the seer—to the general rapture of those poetry lovers; or I began to quiz them on specific details as to this or that work of poetry and concluded that these poetry lovers had not even read it in its entirety So what was going on? How could a person be enraptured without even having read a work all the way through?...Naturally, each of these experiments was greeted by a great many protests and much taking of offense, and the poetry lovers swore on all the saints that this was not how it was...but these peas bounced off the hard crags of the Almighty Experiment.
If you were to do this today, to take say a dozen different lines of some revered poet like say Charles Reznikoff, collage them together and claim it was something you found in some dusty archive, I am quite sure you'd have people falling all over themselves as Witold describes. What this experiment is testing is the following question: is it the actual poetry or the name (i.e., the brand identity) of a certain poet that people respond to? Answer: past a certain point, its probably the name.

Which correlates to the second experiment, which likewise remains a valid point, perhaps more so now than when this essay was written. Take The Maximus Poems. Ever read the whole thing? I mean the big U of California, 664 page edition. What about A? Pound's Cantos? The discourse around works like these is full of swooning and the word masterpiece, but really very few people have actually read them. In fact, if you say in public that you have read them, people act like you're bragging, showing off. But no one comes out and says those poems are too long and they're boring and I don't like them. Instead, reading them is more like quitting smoking, everyone's trying to do it, or about to, or at least feels like they should, and if they fail then they feel like there's something wrong with them.
I found myself, therefore, facing the following dilemma: thousands of people write verse; hundreds of thousands adore that poetry; first-rate geniuses have expressed themselves in poems; from time immemorial, Poetry has been revered; and against this mountain of praise, I, with my suspicion that the poetic mass takes place in an absolute vacuum...In spite of this, however, my experiments heartened me...Why didn't I like the taste of pure poetry? Why? Wasn't it for the same reason that I didn't like sugar in a pure state? Sugar is good for sweetening coffee, but not for eating by the spoonful like gruel...the excess wearies; the excess of poetry, poetic words, metaphors, sublimations, finally, the excess of condensation and purification of all antipoetic elements, which results in poems similar to chemical products.

Song is a very special form of expression....Yet, behold, in the course of centuries, the singers have been multiplying, the singers who, while singing, are forced to assume the posture of the singer and it is this posture that in time becomes more and more rigid. And one singer arouses another, and one confirms the other in an ever more stubborn frenzy of song, ha, they are no longer singing for other people but for one another; and between them, on a path of unceasing rivalry, a constant perfecting of themselves in the singing, a pyramid is created whose peak reaches the heavens, and which we admire from below, from earth, looking upward. What was supposed to have been a momentary flight of prose became a program, a system, a profession—and today one is a Poet, the way one is an engineer or a doctor. The poem has swelled to monstrous proportions so that we no longer control it; it rules us.
One goes from high school to college. One then enters one of the better MFA programs. One is a faithful disciple, a good mentee. One does what one is told, the way one is told to do it, and one thinks about it in the way one has been taught to think about it. One publishes in journals, gives readings. One graduates and takes an adjunct position. One writes papers and attends conferences. One publishes chapbooks. One has controversies with one's contemporaries. One is granted tenure. One publishes trade editions. One collects disciples and mentees of one's own. One dies. One's collected poems are published. Papers are written about one, conferences are held to study one.
Poets have become slaves and we could describe the poet as a being who can no longer express himself as much as someone who must express—a Poem. Yet there can be no more important assignment than for one to express himself.

Now of course, all the good little poet-types are just frothing at the mouth. He's talking about self- expression! He can't do that! There's no such thing! It's totally invalid! Ssshhhh...calm yourselves. Now listen: there's nothing you could possibly do that isn't self-expression. Not one thing. Even the pathological desire to deny the existence or validity of self-expression is itself a form of self-expression. And anyway you're just parroting second- or third-hand French theory you picked up in school. Or confusing what's being discussed here with confessionalism, which is another thing entirely. No one's suggesting that every poem should be some foggy glimpse into the “soul of the poet” or any such nonsense. That would be limiting, and the point here is not to limit anything, but rather to look for a way to get past the ways in which poets limit poetry.
We should never lose sight of the truth: that all style, every distinct attitude forms itself through elimination and is, basically, an impoverishment. Because of this, we should not allow any attitude whatsoever to reduce our potential, becoming a gag—when it's a matter of so artificial, no, of almost pretentious posture as “singer,” then that is all the more reason that we should be especially alert. We, however, up to now anyway, have spent a lot more time perfecting ourselves in this or that style, or in this or that position, rather than maintaining a certain inner freedom and independence from them, in order to work out the right relationship between ourselves and our position. It would seem that Form is a value in itself independently of whether or not it enriches or impoverishes us. We perfect art frantically but the question, to what degree has it maintained its bond with me, doesn't seem to concern us at all.
Of course nowadays we have to add to this the phenomenon of poets slavishly adhering to ideology as well as form, to the extent that for some of them ideology basically becomes form. Anybody who, at this point, is thinking that Witold is just some kind of literary philistine should go get any one of his books and read it. What you'll find is that this is not a writer who can be called “conventional” in any way. Far from it. Witold was just as concerned with form as anyone, but it had to be his and it had to change from book to book because each book was different, and therefore required that form best suited to its content. He was, as should be apparent from this essay, the mortal foe of form calcified into expectation or cliché, and by form he means not only the characteristics of the individual work but also ways of conceiving or thinking about literature in general, works as well as writers in addition to the role of both in the larger culture.
There exist two contrary types of humanism: one, which we could call the religious, tries to send man to his knees before a work of human culture...and the other, a more difficult current of our spirit which strives to restore sovereignty and independence in relation to the Gods and Muses, which are ultimately man's creations. In this second instance, the word 'art' is written with a small letter. And it is beyond doubt that a style that is capable of encompassing both of these tendencies is fuller, more authentic, and more closely relates to the antimonies of our nature than a style that expresses only one of these two poles of our emotions. Of all artists, poets are the people who fall to their knees most persistently—they pray most fervently—they are priests par excellence and ex professo, and Poetry in this understanding simply becomes celebration. It is exactly this exclusivity that causes the style and position of poets to be so drastically unsatisfactory, so incomplete. Let us speak a moment more about style. We said that an artist must express himself. But, in expressing himself, he must also take care that his manner of speaking be in harmony with his real situation in the world and he must render not only his relationship to the world, but also the relationship of the world to him. If, being a coward, I take on a heroic tone, I am committing a stylistic mistake. But if I express myself as if I were respected and loved by everyone, while in reality people neither respect nor like me, I am also making a stylistic mistake.
These days our poets still fall to their knees and pray as much as they ever did, though politics and ideology have supplanted the Gods and Muses. And they certainly conduct themselves, in many instances, as priests. Of what? Of poetry itself. And of course they would all claim to embody the second type of humanism Witold describes, but they are lying. It's the first type they're really into, the kind that forces you to your knees in a state of awe, the kind that leaves you disposed to pay someone to explain it all to you, to initiate you and grant you access to the Great Mystery, which, when it's finally revealed, looks a lot like an internet video of a guy fellating himself, playing on an endless loop.

Yes, Witold is drawing an explicit link between an individual, their personality and situation, and that individual's literary output. This is not an idea that most contemporary poets can support. They prefer a conception of the poet as a sort of disembodied combination college professor/thesaurus. This is because their personalities, in many cases, consist of little beyond the wish to have air conditioning, a pathological desire for middle class physical comfort and a fear of its lack. If poets went around saying things, especially things that related to them specifically, rather than making shadow puppets out of Helvetica, then these people would be in bad shape, because they have essentially nothing to say. So they labor to make saying much of anything unfashionable.
If we want to have an idea of the real situation in the world, we cannot avoid a confrontation with realities that are different from ours. A man who has formed himself only in contact with people similar to himself, who is a product of only his milieu, will have a worse style than he who has come to know various milieus and people. And thus in poets not only their piety irritates us, that complete surrender to Poetry, but also their ostrich politics in relation to reality: for they defend themselves against reality, they don't want to see or acknowledge it, they intentionally work themselves into a stupor which is not strength but weakness.

Don't poets create for poets? Don't they look only for disciples, that is, for people like themselves? Aren't these poems merely the product of a certain, tight-knit group? Aren't they hermetic? Of course, I am not accusing them of being 'difficult'—I am not demanding that they write 'in a way comprehensible to everyone' or that they step under thatched roofs. This would be equal to having them surrender the most real values such as consciousness, reason, a greater sensitivity, and a more profound knowledge about life and the world in order to lower themselves to an average level, oh, no, no art which respects itself would ever agree to that! He who is reasonable, subtle, noble, and profound must speak reasonably, subtly, and profoundly, and he who is sophisticated must speak in a sophisticated way—for superiority exists and it does not exist to lower itself. It is not bad, therefore, that contemporary poems are not accessible to just anybody, but it is bad that they are born of a one-sided, tight, coexistence of identical worlds, identical people.
This touches on what is probably my single biggest problem with the social politics of contemporary poetry, especially so-called “experimental” poetry. You go to a reading and 98 to 100 percent of the people there are white and 98 to 100 percent of them have college degrees, many of them advanced degrees. The overwhelming whiteness is, of course, instantly visible, undeniable. So they have a panel about it and decide that everything's fine since some of their best friends are Black. The college degrees, however, are never mentioned. Why? Because there's no way to look at it honestly and reach any conclusion but this: contemporary American poetry, especially that with high aesthetic pretensions, is almost exclusively a phenomenon of the white middle and upper classes, who can pursue poetry as a profession or vocation because they have the luxuries of education and leisure that their class privilege affords them. It is, in a word, bourgeois.

But don't expect anybody to cop to this. Gombrowicz's term “ostrich politics” is dead on. They just stick their heads in the sand and act like nothing's happening. Of the three big Critical Theory hobby horses; race, class and gender; gender is far and away the most examined of the three. Race is a distant second. Class is hardly discussed at all, except in the context of an empty, pantomime Marxism that conducts itself with all the assumed objectivity, and all the condescension, of 19th Century anthropology. This is the politics of rich painters all over again, and it is both fundamentally dishonest and disgusting.
Allow me to present the following scene....Imagine that in a group of several people, one rises and begins to sing. This singing bores the majority of listeners, but the singer does not want to acknowledge this fact. No, he acts as if he were captivating; he demands that all fall to their knees before this Beauty; he demands a ruthless recognition of his role as Seer; and even though no one attaches great importance to his singing, he acquires a mien as if his word had decisive meaning for the world. Full of belief in his Poetic Mission, he casts thunderbolts, thunders, roars, and goes crazy in a vacuum. What is more, he does not want to admit to himself or others that his singing bores, torments, wearies even himself—because he does not express himself freely or naturally or directly, only in a form that has long lost contact with direct human feelings and is inherited from other poets. Behold he not only vaunts Poetry, he is also enamored of it; being a Poet, he adores the greatness and the importance of the Poet; he not only demands that others fall to their knees before him, he, too, falls to his knees before himself.
The above could easily be a description of a Barrett Watten reading.
This helplessness in the face of reality, therefore, characterizes in a devastating way the style and attitude of poets...The minute poets lost sight of a concrete human being and became transfixed with abstract Poetry, nothing could keep them from rolling down the incline into the chasm of the absurd...Language has become ritualistic...The narrowing of language is accompanied by a narrowing of style, which has led to a state in which poems today are nothing more than a few insistent combinations of a miserly dictionary...Because, on the one hand, the poem, deprived of all brakes, inflated itself to the limits of a gigantic poem...and on the other, began condensing itself to dimensions too synthetic and homeopathic. Poets also began submitting themselves to various experiments and discoveries with a mien of frightening initiation—and nothing is capable of restraining this boring orgy. It is not a matter of man's creativity for man, but of a ritual completed before an altar. And for every ten poems, at least one will be devoted to the worship of the power of the Poetic Word or a glorification of the Poet's vocation.
At this point, Witold is on such a roll that I don't feel compelled to provide much commentary. He's now demolished, by my count: romanticism, symbolism, modernism, post-modernism, quietism, objectivism, academic poetry, language poetry, theory-infused poetry, all things “post-avant”, conceptualism, and flarf. Basically everything within a hundred years of him in either direction. He now proceeds to attack the general community of poets:
If casting aside the works, we concern ourselves with the persons of the poets and the little world that these persons create along with their followers and acolytes, then we begin to lack even more air and space. Poets not only write for poets, but they also praise and honor each other. This world, or rather microworld, does not differ much from other hermetic and specialized microworlds: chess players consider chess the height of human creativity, they have their hierarchies, they speak of Capablanca with a reverence equal to that used by poets when speaking of Mallarmé, and one confirms the other in the feeling of his own importance. Yet chess players have no pretensions to a universal role and that which can be forgiven in chess players becomes unforgivable in poets. As a consequence of this isolation, everything becomes inflated, and even mediocre poets puff themselves up to apocalyptic dimensions and trivial problems assume outrageous proportions.
I used to hang out with chess players, in Chicago, serious chess players, and he's right, the two groups have a lot in common. Witold has noticed another modern problem: there are a hell of a lot of poets:
Another no less compromising fact is the number of poets. To the excesses just touched on above should be added the excess of seers. These ultrademocratic figures explode the aristocratic and proud fortress of poetry from within—and, of course, it is quite amusing when one sees them all together at some sort of congress: what a throng of exceptional beings!
And finally Witold winds down the attack by taking the poetry press, which these days is mostly journals and bloggers, down a peg or two:
Really funny are the criticisms, the little articles, aphorisms, essays, which turn up in the press on the subject of poetry. This is gibberish, but bombastic gibberish, so naïve and childish that it is difficult to believe that the people wielding the pen did not feel the ridiculousness of this publicism. Those stylists have still not understood that one is not allowed to write about poetry in a poetic tone and their newspapers are bursting with such poetic lucubrations. Great is the ridiculousness, too, that accompanies the recitals, contests, and demonstrations, but it is probably not worth going into great detail about this.
And here we'll let Witold go on his way.

Please recall that this essay's title is “Against Poets,” rather than “Against Poetry.” Poetry itself is not the problem. The problem is poets. Those who consider poetry their private property, which they alone are qualified to write, evaluate, explain. Those who insist that their own narrow practice is the full extent of the valid applications of the art. Those who mistakenly believe that what goes on in their own language is all that matters or is relevant. Those who restrain poetry, keep it confined in the restricted space occupied only by other poets.

A few weeks ago some friends and I did a reading in an apartment in Brooklyn. There were about twenty-five or thirty people there. Unlike most readings I've been to or taken part in, the audience on this occasion was not composed of other poets. They were most of them between twenty-three and thirty, a few older, a few younger. They weren't poets but they weren't idiots either, and they came out to hear some poems, drink a little, hang out, have a party. They all sat on the floor while we read and I've never seen a better crowd in my life. They were engaged, invested, responsive. Everybody who read wound up having good conversations with them for hours afterward. Those with books to sell sold more than the average number of copies, and I'm sure that most of those books were actually read. Because that's who they were: readers.

One of them asked me, “Hey, where the hell did all the poets go?” My answer was this: Up their own asses. That is not, however, an irreversible historical process or the fate of “Art” in a philistine age. That's not something poets had to do “to survive,” by which they mean “to have air conditioning.” That's a choice made by two or three generations of individual poets, who could just as well have chosen to do the opposite, but lacked the nerve.

I could now rant and rave, exhort people to make a different choice from now on, etc., but that would be embarrassing. It would also be useless because, as Witold says toward the end of his essay, we can "rest easy: nothing will ever change among poets."