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.

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