Archive for the ‘Career Suicide’ Category

Thence to a Lightness: the Madness of English 201

Friday, February 15th, 2013

I teach at a community college in Lower Manhattan. Whatever, it’s fine. Really. This isn’t going to be a post about grade inflation, or political correctness, or how the kids come out of high school not knowing anything. For the most part, the only disadvantage to teaching at a school full of inner-city kids when compared with the schools I’ve taught at full of suburban kids is that I can’t explain everything with Simpsons references. Admittedly, that took a lot of getting used to, but it’s my problem, not theirs.

Mostly, I teach English 201—the required intro lit class. The one where everyone has to write research papers about literature. I love teaching that class. My only complaint about it is the fact that it shouldn’t exist.

Seriously. Why should a bunch of people who want to be nurses or mechanics or EMTs have to write 15-page research papers on Shakespeare or Joyce? And I’m not stereotyping them when I say those are the jobs they want to have. I know because I asked them, and they told me. And then I busted them all for plagiarism, because my job revolves around forcing them to do something they are not capable of doing and then acting surprised when they can’t.

Hang on. I’m not saying Great Literature is useless, or elitist, or whatever. I agree that they should have to read these books, and I’m the first one to say that they’re all capable of understanding and liking them. No-one should graduate from college without being able to name at least one poem that they love, or being able to exit a party in embarrassment and then make themselves laugh by saying “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity, and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” Reading literature really does enrich everyone’s life, no matter what the person in question wants to do for the rest of that life. Writing about literature, however, is not the same thing as reading it. Not everyone needs to know how to do that. In fact, almost no-one does. We don’t make people who want to be professors learn how to take apart and rebuild an engine, so why do we make people who want to be mechanics learn how to review a body of scholarship, pick out relevant quotations, and format them properly as citations and sources in support of an argumentative thesis?

Yes, I know that everyone has opinions, and that it is a duty of education to train people to make sure their opinions are well-supported and develop a sense of where those opinions fit in along a continuum of the opinions of experts on the subject. But there is already a class where we teach people to do that—it’s called English 101 (at most schools). We already make freshman take a class where they write research papers about sociopolitical issues (abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, etc.) and have to incorporate and format quotations from authorities in support of their opinion. That’s fine. But then—for some reason—there’s almost always another required course right after that one where we make them do the exact same thing all over again, but this time with literature.

And that, in my opinion, is pointless for everyone who doesn’t want to be an academic.

The reason we’ve never stopped to consider this is that, deep down, we think that everybody secretly wants to be an academic. But they don’t, and for perfectly good reasons. All things considered, we’re the crazy ones, not them. And we need to let go of the egotistical idea that what we are trying to do here is “rescue” people from having to have jobs where they get their hands dirty. Lots of people want to have those jobs, the same way we wanted to be English professors. We’ve been acting on the assumption that everyone really wants to have our job, and that anyone who doesn’t end up with it has been screwed over by society. But that’s simply not the case. The vast majority of people, working-class or otherwise, would rather have a poke in the eye with a sharp stick than our job. It’s like the old joke where the reason the Boy Scout took so long to help the little old lady across the street is because she didn’t want to go.

Let’s take a step back here, and examine how we got into this mess.

1. We want to make people read literature.
2. In order to make them, there has to be a class where we make them.
3. If there’s a class where we make them, there has to be a way to grade them.
4. In order to have a way to grade them, we need to make them write papers.

The first idea is good, but by the time you get up to step four, what’s going on isn’t good anymore. We need to go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to accomplish Step 1 without ending up at the lunacy of Step 4.

When I say this is a tragedy, I mean that literally. That’s what a tragedy is: the beginning is normal, the end is horrible, and you got from the beginning to the end by a series of small steps that all seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time.

I keeping telling my students that literature isn’t a secret code that they have to figure out—that the only point is to enjoy it, the same way you do with a movie or a song that you like. The problem with that is, the way I have to grade their papers makes a liar out of me, because a paper that says “I really enjoyed this story by Raymond Carver or Isabel Allende” inevitably gets a lower grade than one that says “I figured out all the hidden references in this story by James Joyce or all the philosophical stuff in this one by Jorge Luis Borges.” So while you may not have to regard the study of literature as an exercise in code-breaking to have a favorite book, the students who do gravitate towards seeing it that way usually end up getting the best grades. I know, because that’s what I did as a student, and now I’m an English professor. But not everyone is like me. If everyone were like me, the world would be an utterly insufferable place in which to live, no matter how many great books there were.

And our attempts at inclusiveness have just made matters worse. Somewhere ’round about the 90s, we decided that required intro courses should reward directions-following instead of (or at least, more so than) rewarding talent. So instead of handing out good grades based on brilliant theses or eloquent prose, we started handing out good grades based on thorough research and correct formatting. That may be a fairer shake for people who weren’t born with big fat literature centers in their brains, but the problem is, it’s also utter madness. Because at this point, what you’ve got on your hands is a required course where the majority of a student’s final grade is based on their adherence to a set of skills that absolutely no-one besides an academic would never need—and the double irony is, anyone who is actually going to become an academic probably placed out of the course to begin with.

So all this accomplished was to significantly augment the craziness of the first series of steps, because now it looks like this:

1. We want to make people read literature.
2. In order to make them, there has to be a class where we make them.
3. If there’s a class where we make them, there has to be a way to grade them.
4. In order to have a way to grade them, we need to make them write papers.
5. If we grade the papers based on talent, it’s not fair.
6. So instead, we grade them based on adherence to a template that is useless to everyone but academics, which these students are never going to be.

I once taught at a college where, instead of a paper, the final for the required intro lit-based comp course was an exam—standardized across the sections, and required by the department—that obligated the students to memorize citation format. That’s right—memorize it. A sample question would look something like “Below is all the publication/copyright information for a piece of microfilm. How would you format an in-text citation to this piece of microfilm in MLA standards? How would you do it by APA standards?” No-one who isn’t an academic would ever need to know how to do this, and besides, anyone who is an academic could just look up how to do it in about ten seconds. There’s absolutely no need for anyone, including academics, to memorize it. But anyone who failed this exam failed the course, which they then had to take over and over again until they passed in order to graduate. Oh, and did I mention that this college was a hospitality trade school for people who want to be chefs and hotel managers?

How in the world did we get from “it is good for people to read books” to this?

Oh, well—we have no choice, right? Like hell we don’t. You know what I think we should do instead? Keep having a required intro lit course where we make people read books, but don’t make them write any papers. Base the entire grade on participation in class discussion. If some students want to write papers for extra credit, they can, but they don’t have to be research papers. That’s it. We read great short stories and poems, plus a play or a novel, and we all show up and talk about them, and no-one has to write a god damned thing. If you think that sounds too easy, and like a “joke” class, just remember why we’re in this business. We became English professors in the first place because we think it’s vitally important for everyone to read literature, right? Well, if that’s really what we believe, then why should we feel like a class where that’s all we make anybody do would be a joke?

Everyone would still be reading great works, they’d still have to prove they read them by talking in class, they’d get to read more of them because every day would be a discussion on a text with no days lost to technical lessons about how to write papers, and they could still be graded based on participation. The only difference would be that the students would actually have a chance of enjoying the texts, because they’d be reading them for pleasure instead of in terror over what grade they’re going to get on the writings they’d eventually have to do about them.

Oh, and we wouldn’t have to grade papers. Ever.

Overrated Famous Poems #2: “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, November 26th, 2010

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day.  Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel.  None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch.  And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones.  And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

For the first installment of my “Overrated Famous Poems” series, I picked a poem I hate by a poet I love.  I will begin the second by specifying that this is manifestly not the case this time: I don’t just hate “One Art,” but the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop generally.

If you are someone who is currently alive and bothering to read a blog about poetry (both of which can safely be assumed), this probably shocks you.  When I was in graduate school, Bishop’s name was one of those most often mentioned when my classmates listed their favorite poets.  I had no idea why this was then, and I still don’t.

My anathematic distaste for Bishop was thrown into relief by my admiration for Robert Lowell, a poet of the same generation often mentioned in the same breath, as critics have seen fit to arrange the two in a rivalry.  Fifty years ago people said Lowell was better than Bishop.  Thirty years ago people said they were equally good.  Now everyone says Bishop is awesome and Lowell sucks and that people only ever said Lowell was better because he was a man.

Guess what?  They were right the first time: Lowell really was better.


And not because he was a man.  I love tons of 20th-century women poets.  Sylvia Plath was better than Bishop.  Anne Sexton was better than Bishop.  You know what?  Fuck you, Edna St. Vincent Millay was better than Bishop.  You heard me.  Want me to say it again?  Edna St. Vincent Millay was better than Elizabeth Bishop.

My formula for this is not incredibly scientific.  It was devised by the greatest female writer of all time in any language or genre, Emily Dickinson.  Mistress Dickinson (and I call her that because she was a dominatrix, not a Puritan) said that a poem should “take the top of your head off.”  In modern parlance, that means “kick ass.”  And that is what Dickinson poems did.  Every single Emily Dickinson poem puts its foot so far up your ass that you can feel the little square heel of a 19th-century bottine digging into the bottom of your heart.

You know how many Elizabeth Bishop poems put their foot up your ass?  None.  You know how many Elizabeth Bishop poems put so much as one toe up your ass, even after warming you up for a long time and looking deep into your eyes and making a big speech about trust?  None.

It was the anarchic, vampiric, dirty pretty things Sexton and Plath who were Dickinson’s midcentury heirs.  Bishop’s meticulously itemized bestiary has little to do with the Amherst Amazon’s First Robin, and far less to do with her Narrow Fellow.  People just say Bishop is better because she was ugly, and academics don’t like teaching poems by hot women about fucking, because normal people actually like poems like that so it doesn’t feel smart enough.

I am not saying Elizabeth Bishop was not talented.  I understand why her poems are virtuoso affairs, and why they are good examples of all the stuff they are good examples of.  I am saying they are boring.  I am saying Elizabeth Bishop used her considerable talent to write boring poems.  Being extremely talented doesn’t mean you can’t be boring.  Billy Joel is extremely talented too.  I realize that most living poets prefer Bishop to the other 20th-century poets I have named so far.  And hey, that reminds me: most living poets?  ALSO BORING.

But to the poem.  The first stanza of “One Art” is fine.  I even like it.  The first line is not a great line in and of itself, but seems strongly like it could be if the rest of the poem can cash the check it writes.  And the following couplet is even better.  There’s an attractive pain to the things that “seem filled with the intent / to be lost,” and I love the trick of using the meter to accentuate the passivity (grammatically speaking and otherwise) of that be.  We’re off to a great start.

Unfortunately, the poem then hops the first moose to WTF-Land and never waves bye-bye.  I could see how the keys in the second stanza could work as a sort of warm-up, a suspense builder.  Losing keys is frustrating, and the “hour badly spent” could mimic the frustration of waiting for the poem to really get going.  If it ever did.  But it doesn’t.  It’s not suspense if nothing happens next.

“Places, and names, and where it was you meant / to travel.”  Seriously?  Are you going to tell us, or…?  This stanza accomplishes nothing.  In any poem—and this goes double for a poem in this demanding a form—every stanza needs to be doing as much work as the others, and this one does nothing.  Except for getting us to the next stanza.

…Which also does nothing.  Well, it does succeed in getting me pissed off at this bitch complaining about having had too many goddamn houses when I don’t even have a bed, but this is not the poem’s intent.  Then the next stanza specifies that the houses were in cities, which in turn were on continents, as if this were not already implied.

This poem has six stanzas, and three of them are completely useless.

You know how sometimes you realize you have some famous poem basically memorized even though you have never deliberately memorized it?  But with some other famous poems, even if you have read them just as many times, there are always parts you forget, unless you have expressly taken pains to sit down and memorize the poem?  Let me guess: with “One Art,” you remember the beginning and the end but always totally space on the middle, even though you have seen the poem a thousand times and probably even taught it.  Well, now you know why: it’s because the middle sucks.

To be fair, “One Art” is a villanelle, and good villanelles are nearly impossible to write.  How impossible?  The form has been around for centuries, and still there are only like four villanelles.  You could say that “One Art” is the second-best villanelle in English.  But the first best is “Do Not Go Gentle” by Dylan Thomas, so this is kind of like saying that the second-best song to mention Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band after “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is “Rocket” by Def Leppard.

The two poems are structurally similar beyond that, in that they both adopt similar strategies of overcoming the form (which is not to say that Bishop simply cribbed Thomas’s).  The rub with a villanelle is how to make the end feel satisfying when the reader has seen the last two lines three times each by that point.  Both “Do Not Go Gentle” and “One Art” introduce an addressee at the buzzer—a “you” in the first line of the last stanza—in Thomas’s case, his dying father, and in Bishop’s, a lost lover.  In both cases, the reader turns out to have been eavesdropping on a private conversation that up ’til then had seemed like a public lecture on a theme.  Dying fathers and lost lovers are both affecting, and we care about both endings.

But how much did we care before the end?  Thomas’s middle is about various disparate categories of people joined in their final moments by the realization that they had wasted their lives.  Bishop’s middle is about how she moved a lot.  That’s it.  Go read the poem again.  The whole middle is just about how she fucking moved a lot.  I mean, I know moving is a pain, but it’s not like Bishop even moved because she had to.  She moved because she felt like it.  And she was rich, so she didn’t even have to carry her boxes of books herself.  What is the big deal?

And the parenthetical “(Write it!)” in the last line is the single cheesiest thing ever to appear in a poem that was not originally published on LiveJournal.

The things I dislike about “One Art” are hardly exhaustive of the things I dislike about Elizabeth Bishop’s work generally.  Perhaps foremost among these is the fact that, for all the talk of her “precision,” Bishop is an abysmal rhymer.  Go look back over her greatest hits, and you will be hard-pressed to deny that fully half the rhymes in any given poem are cringeworthy.  Not all the worst offenders rhyme, of course.  There is that sestina about hanging out in the kitchen with your grandmother, which I sincerely wish I had also had the opportunity to make fun of.  Oh wait, I just did, merely by virtue of mentioning the fact that it is a sestina about hanging out in the kitchen with your grandmother.  For fuck’s sake.

Underrated Famous Poems #1: “If” by Rudyard Kipling

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings — nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man my son!

I remember seeing the late Craig Arnold (a masterful showman, and one of the chiefest exceptions I ever saw to this post) read at Kenyon College in 1999 or so.  During the Q&A, someone asked him who he’d been reading recently, and Arnold said Rudyard Kipling.  The reaction to this response on the parts of most of the assembled was to laugh like it was a joke, wave it off like he was being deliberately provocative, or block it out and pretend it never really happened.

Kipling—aka the “White Man’s Burden” Guy—is best known to recent generations of poets not from English class, but from history class.  On the rare occasions he is introduced as a poet rather than a sloganeer for imperialism, he is merely set up to be knocked down.  And I don’t see why (I mean, yes, obviously I see why, I’m not an idiot, but hear me out).  Take a poem like “If.”  Although it has nothing directly to do with imperialism, “If” is often painted with the same broad brush as “White Man’s Burden”—and it is still, more or less, a stiff-upper-lip affair about suffering in silence even though you’re better than everyone.  The double-masculinism of its final and most famous line, which many people—tellingly—mistakenly think is the poem’s title, doesn’t help its case with academics of course, nor does the air of persecution fantasy that reads today as so right-wing, nor does its wholly unironic use of cringe-worthy phrases like common touch.  Although English teachers are by and large in the business of trying to make sentiments from the past accessible to students—of trying to demonstrate that something “old” isn’t necessarily as “lame” as a teenager tends to assume it is—they are happy to make an exception in this case: the “old” poem “If” is not only every bit as “lame” as a teenager assumes it is, but worse, and furthermore is in fact emblematic of why the past itself was lame.

But here’s the thing:  FUCK YOU THIS POEM IS GOOD.

The way I see it, we condemn “If” for infractions also committed by any number of other poems and poets that we like just fine.  It is hardly the only poem where a male speaker assumes a male reader.  And as for persecution fantasies, is a single one of the Confessionals less guilty?  (Berryman’s Dream Songs, for example, are not only just as paranoid as Kipling but nearly as racist, and without the excuse of having been written before freaking planes were invented, but are apotheosized across the board.)  As for elitism, Kipling was no more upper-class than pretty much every single poet who wrote before the mid-19th century.

So the way I see it even more clearly, we don’t actually condemn “If” for these reasons at all.  The real thing about this poem that upsets contemporary poets, or teachers, or just liberal intellectuals generally, is that it actually purports to give advice.  The speaker is not imperiled.  The speaker is not even particularly sad.  The speaker is not even really present, aside from the strong implication that he too once had to deal with the litany of travails enumerated therein (I mean, of course he has, since he is awesome, and haven’t all awesome people had to deal with crap like that?).

And not any old advice, but advice about how to be strong, of all things.  How to be a Man, for pete’s sake.  There oughta be a law.  In an age when I would not totally be kidding if I were to say that most poems genuinely amount to advice about how to be weak, “If” is just not okay.

And that’s why I love it so much.  Over the course of the more-than-half-my-life I’ve spent trying hard to get better and better at poetry, I have learned many things, but assertiveness in the face of widespread and potentially violent opposition is not one of them.  This poem helps me.  Honest-to-goodness helps me, as in not just with how to write a poem but in my actual real life, in the tack-it-up-over-my-desk-and-read-it-every-morning sense, which is holy shit what normal people do with poems if and when they stumble across one that speaks to them.  And I don’t think I’m anywhere near alone among contemporary poets in feeling like I severely lack what “If” is selling.  I think the academics who roll their eyes at it protest too much.  I think they—I think we—know we need it, and that scares us.  Not just because it means that deep down we think being a Man actually means something, which makes us bad and wretched and unacceptable and impure liberal academics.  But also because it freaks us out to need a poem for a reason besides heuristics about how to write another poem.  And by extension, nudges us towards the conclusion that, if it is not only possible but superior for people to need poems for any other reason, this means that a comically huge percentage of all the poetry that has been written in America in the last couple decades is, you know, a complete waste of time.  (“If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,” anyone?)

But look, the fact that it just sounds better that way aside, we can easily ignore the “be a Man” bit.  There’s nothing at all gendered in the rest of the poem—it is good advice for men and women equally (some of it perhaps for women even more so: “Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies” strikes me as a particularly useful saw for a junior-high girl who wishes to rise above the pack).  And what’s so problematic about the theme of suffering in silence even though you’re better than everyone?  Poets and teachers should understand this better than anybody.  (I mean, hey, take “White Man’s Burden” and replace the term White Man’s with Smart Person’s and it is just a poem about being a teacher, and a pretty spot-on one at that.)

The history of Western Civilization is regularly and predictably punctuated by intense periods of people losing their shit and blaming it on us (i.e., smart people), so why should we feel so guilty about liking the opening two lines of this poem?  We are more entitled to like it than anybody.  The lifelong, soul-crushing paradox of how to deal with stupid people’s automatic dismissals of anything we say and how best to get them to change their minds about everything that makes them who they are while still “respecting” them drives us up the pole from cradle to grave, and lines 3 and 4 nail it with elegance to spare.  Yes, a Tea Partier might well read this and think Kipling is addressing him, instead of us.  But the fact that idiots are wrong about things is what makes them idiots.  It would be a bad idea to cede the concept of fortitude to idiots, just like it was a bad idea to cede patriotism to them.

We cannot be so afraid of occasionally liking the same things as idiots.  Our letting idiots have all the stuff that people like is what makes idiots popular, and this just creates more idiots.  We will just have to content ourselves with knowing that we like these things for better reasons.  If you anticipate that liking some of the same things as idiots might make people on your own side judge and label you, and that this will be hard to deal with, then I refer you to THIS POEM.

But that just brings us back to the central fear: the fact that this poem gives advice about what to do in real life (besides write poems).  There is no ambiguity.  Since advice that you have to figure out or that might mean two things at the same time would be pretty shitty advice, “If” tells you straight-up in memorable, stone-tablets verse what you are supposed to do to win at life.  And questioning our assumption that no ambiguity equals a bad poem is terrifying, since it forces us to ask ourselves the direct question of what it is that a good poem is supposed to do.  And the answer just might be “something besides simply be a good poem,” which is not only terrifying but maddening.

When we cross the line in the sand that separates poem-advice giving from life-advice giving, the poet ceases merely to be someone who has honed a very particular and practically useless skill and becomes an “authority,” in a sense that we thought we had dispensed with somewhere around the time we stopped giving terminal “-ed”s their own syllable.  But I have no problem with seeing Kipling as an authority here.  What better evidence is there that someone is qualified to give good advice than the fact that the advice they give is good?  This doesn’t mean Rudyard Kipling would have been qualified to fix my car or remove my appendix, but I’m not asking him to.  I’m asking him to be the guy who wrote “If,” a poem that I think should appear on page one of the Handbook for Smart People.

Unfortunately, he is also the guy who wrote “White Man’s Burden,” so that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.

Are Male Poets Misogynists?

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Every time a woman has asked me what I do and I’ve told her that I write poetry, I’ve gotten one of two reactions.  If the woman in question is uneducated, she asks if I’m gay.  And if the woman is educated, she asks me whether it’s true that all male poets are misogynists.  Despite the fact that it’s fashionable among educated people who would be (justifiably) horrified by the first stereotype, I think the second stereotype is just as retarded as the first.

Both stereotypes, after all, proceed from the same assumption: normally, poetry is written by women, so when a man writes poetry, something is amiss.  Indeed, “poet” is one of the few job titles it even occurs to people to modify with “male,” the expectation being that practitioners should be female.  The only others I can think of are “male stripper,” “male nurse,” “male flight attendant,” and of course, “male prostitute.”  All of these designations carry strong homosexual connotations in our culture (in the last, it is a job requirement), including, I suppose, “male poet.”  Of course, it is not the case that a majority of poets are female (at least not a clear majority), nor that the majority of male poets are gay.  But the point is, people think these things are true: ergo, when a poet is male, something is fishy, and when said male poet is not gay, something is doubly fishy.

Many of the supposedly misogynistic characteristics of male poets, it seems to me, are—to the extent that they are true at all—true of artists generally, and for various reasons are selectively noticed in (straight) male poets.  For example, artists tend to be more honest than normal people—at least, honest in the sense of “socially blunt, with little regard for propriety.”  To a woman used to being flattered by men, this can read as misogyny.  I doubt that male poets on the whole are any more socially plain-dealing than, say, female sculptors, but the trait as it appears in us reads differently.  If a woman is in the habit of making unexpectedly cutting remarks to or about men, people may find it just as offputting, but will process it as a political stance rather than a psychological flaw.

It is certainly true in my experience that artists of both genders tend to have troubled personal lives, but ascribing this to sexism seems reductionist.  I think it more likely attributable to the fact that artists tend to be emotionally needy—if we were not, we would not have become artists (I speak here not broadly of people who possess artistic talent, but specifically of those who pursue the Arts as a profession).  I refuse to speculate on whether male artists or female artists cheat on their partners more, although I think it safe to say that both groups do so in numbers exceeding those of the general population.  In the liberal circles in which poets tend to gather, however, it is the fashion for such behavior (and bad behavior generally) to be excused in women more so than in men, at least in the present day.  It is also not uncommon, in male/female romantic partnerships between artists, for the partners to be operating under two different definitions of infidelity—the female partner, for example, is often permitted simultaneously to maintain sexual relationships with other females.  The society of artists is often such that female artists walk with a longer tether, resulting in disproportionate condemnation of males for identical actions.

Even those artists who are not technically unfaithful to their partners frequently have difficulty maintaining happy relationships of long standing.  It is unavoidable that hearts will be broken on all sides.  But a female heartbreaker is the more intriguing for it, and certainly no-one will accuse a gay male heartbreaker of hating men, as is he is a man himself.  Only the straight male heartbreaker draws accusations of “misogyny,” or indeed, accusations of much of anything.

You know that illustration of how sexism happens because when a man observes a negative characteristic in an individual woman, he assumes it is true of all women, but when he observes a negative characteristic in another man he just assumes it is true of that individual?  The same error in reverse can cause women to perceive sexism where none exists.  If I make fun of you for no reason, and then five minutes later I also make fun of a man for no reason, then clearly this is how I treat everyone, not just women.  But many women—especially, once again, in the academic liberal circles in which poets travel—are so accustomed to ferreting out sexism that they will take any man’s treatment of any woman in any situation as indicative of his opinion of women generally without remembering to observe his treatment of other men as a control.  We’re not sexist; we’re insane.

There is also the issue of subject matter.  As straight male poets are—just like gay male poets, straight female poets, gay female poets, and bisexuals of both genders—human beings who lead lives and accrue experiences, we are occasionally motivated to make reference to these experiences in our poems.  Some of these experiences involve love and sexuality, hardly uncommon themes in poetry.  But alone among the various combinations of genders and orientations, when straight male poets make reference to our sex lives in the work, we are “assholes” who are “bragging” about them.  We realize that speaking openly about our sex lives is not necessarily courageous or inherently politically enlightening, as it is when an LGBTQ poet or even a straight woman does so; all we ask is that it not be automatically considered oppressive and gauche.

To the extent that the stereotype of straight-male-poet misogyny conceals a kernel of truth, I think it is this: male poets can be safely assumed to have been, by male standards, atypically sensitive as youths, and in high school probably had an unusually high number of female friends, cared less than did other males about sports, had atypically feminine tastes in music etc., and because of all this grew generally to consider themselves “safe” from feminist complaints about men.  But then upon entering college, they, as not only English majors but creative-writing students, are situationally obliged to bear the brunt of the most extreme feminist rhetoric the campus has to offer, when as far as they can tell, they deserve it less than do any other males.  Thinking something along the lines of This is the thanks I get for being one of the sensitive guys?, many become deeply cynical about gender politics in general.  But this is hardly the same thing as simple misogyny.

Many male poets are also understandably sick of having to defend themselves time and again against the accusation that straight male sensitivity does not in fact exist, and is only a coldly calculated sexual strategy—i.e., the idea that we don’t even really like poetry, but are only pretending we do to get girls.  Whenever a sensitive straight guy reveals himself to have any sex drive at all, people act as if this confirms the suspicion that the sensitivity was just an act.  I don’t see why this would have to be the case.  A man can genuinely like poetry and also want to have sex just like everyone else at the same time.  And if the fact that he likes poetry happens to work as a sexual asset, so what?  Rock stars get way more women than poets do, and no-one has ever accused the Rolling Stones of only pretending to like music.

Hell, I am still pissed about an “exposé” on sensitive guys I read in Jane Magazine eleven years ago (the boy in your English class who claims to like literature may want to have sex with you just like a frat guy, which proves he doesn’t actually like literature at all!).  Just like women who dress sexy, sensitive guys are tired of the opposite sex turning around and reproaching us for our “manipulativeness” when all we’ve done is exactly what they said they wanted us to do.  And this is, once again, hardly the same thing as simple misogyny.

It is, I guess, the lamentable result of being the real-life incarnation of a traditional object of fantasy.  Girls grow up dreaming of being in love with a poet in the same way that boys grow up dreaming of dating a stripper.  And just as the men who do end up dating strippers are shocked and dismayed to find that they don’t sit around the house in glitter and platform heels and don’t invite their girlfriends by for threeways on a nightly basis, the women who end up eventually dating a real live poet are shocked and dismayed to find that he quotes The Simpsons, looks at internet porn, and doesn’t necessarily climb every tree he sees to shout things about love from the top.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, a more sensitive man may even be a less romantic one.  All sensitivity really means is a heightened perceptiveness.  A male poet, perceptive as we tend to be, might for example be more likely to notice that, for every one person you passed on the street and for whatever reason happened to have the courage to smile at and say hello to on that particular day, there were a thousand other people at whom, also for no reason, you didn’t happen to smile, a good number of whom would probably have been better suited to you than whoever you’re with, and therefore come to define love as a reciprocal fiction two random people engage in because for some reason pretending that someone else is special in exchange for their pretending that you are special makes us feel like fucking killing ourselves slightly less of the time.  (You know how poets are “melancholy” and stuff?  Well, that’s why.)  But just because that isn’t the exact same thing you imagined a “poet” would say about love when you were six years old and running around like a drooling spaz in the princess costume you made mommy and daddy buy you by throwing a tantrum in the store, that doesn’t make us misogynists.

Male poets don’t hate women.  We hate people.  There’s a difference.

You Shouldn’t Let Other People Get Your Kicks for You

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books.

………………………………—William Butler Yeats

There’s only two types of people in the world:
The ones that entertain, and the ones that observe.

………………………………—Britney Spears


Like a lot of people, I still have my ticket stub from every concert I’ve ever been to, from Paul McCartney at Giants Stadium when I was twelve, to Bruuuuce doing Born to Run in its entirety at the Spectrum last October.  My November ’93 stub from Nirvana at the bygone New York Coliseum got so soggy in my pocket as I sweated through my jeans that it’s unreadable, but I know what it is.  The regular-piece-of-paper-with-a-big-bar-code-on-it ones from shows where you purchase tix online and print them yourself are not nearly as romantic, but I saved those too.  As fun as they are to take out and hold in my hand, though, the stubs are only physical representations of memories I’d never need any help to hang onto.

Music, of course, is not the art form I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to.  Poetry is.  Accordingly, I’ve been to way more poetry readings in my lifetime than concerts.  These are inevitably held in considerably more intimate venues, involve a tighter focus on the art itself, and are more often than not followed by extended personal interaction with the artists themselves.  I’m not sure how many poetry readings I’ve been to exactly.  Well over a hundred, usually sitting as close to the front as I can.

And—with a few notable exceptions—I remember nothing about any of them, because poetry readings are boring as fuck and I hate them.

This is not surprising, because everyone else feels the same way too.  It may be surprising that anyone is saying so, but as for the fact itself I can’t imagine anyone will deny that (once again, with a few notable exceptions, who deserve to be commended, and whom I would commend if this were about naming names, which it isn’t, at least not yet) poetry readings are simply not enjoyable to be at.  But this is neither a letdown for the audience, who after all do not expect to have a good time, nor a failing on the part of the reader, who after all is not trying to make them have one.

The fact is, people do not attend poetry readings to be entertained (or whatever word you would use in its place, if you object to entertained) by the reading.  We go in order to drink after the reading—whether because we are poets ourselves and want to schmooze the reader (whose reading we happily pretend we could stand, or even paid any attention to), or just because we think it is cool to get drunk with a poet, independently of networking.  This is in fact why it is automatic that everyone retires to a bar when the reading is over—not because, as we like to pretend, that we are all such tortured bohemians we can’t go another minute without a neat whiskey, but simply because if it were not guaranteed that a poetry reading is immediately followed by drinking, no-one would ever go to a poetry reading.


Just consider the few times that you’ve gone to a reading and not managed to find out what bar or house party everyone was going to after.  What happens?  You are pissed off for the rest of the night.  Pissed off that you got tricked into going to a poetry reading just for the reading.  And you are supposedly someone who likes poetry.  Would anyone feel cheated by going to a concert and not automatically getting to drink with the band afterwards, or going to a movie and not subsequently getting to party with the actors?  No.  This is because people actually like concerts and movies, rather than merely pretending to like them for lack of a better idea.

This is not your fault, of course.  It is the poet’s fault, for not being the slightest bit entertaining or interesting.  And really, it is barely the poet’s fault either.  He or she has probably never seen another poet be entertaining or interesting, so where in the world would he or she get the idea that this was expected, or even permissible?  I can think of several famous (relatively speaking) poets whom I do not know whether I have seen read.  I probably have, but truthfully it’s all a blur.

Most poets today read, regardless of subject matter, as if they were declaiming a speech about AIDS in high-school forensics league—the same formalized wide-eyed faux-breathlessness in their faces, the same mannered woundedness in their voices (the major difference being the inexplicable addition of making full.  pauses in.  odd.  places as if you were.  doing a bad.  impression of an.  actress from the.  1930s).  And if your poem were in fact about AIDS—or 9/11 or the Holocaust—this might be appropriate.  But most poetry is not about those things (or indeed about an identifiable event at all).  And though through its ubiquity we have come to read this manner as simple de rigueur poetic politeness, it is absolutely not, or at least by no rights should be.

What we have allowed ourselves to forget is that it is actually obnoxious to read a poem that is not about human tragedy on an grand scale as if it were about human tragedy on a grand scale.  If your poem actually is about genocide, then you are absolutely entitled simply to stand stone still and declaim it in a ghost-robot voice with odd pauses, because the audience has no right to expect to be entertained by utterance on the subject and is ethically obliged to do nearly all the work of listening.  But if your poem is about being stopped at a traffic light and noticing how a styrofoam cup on the side of the road perfectly exemplifies a point from the semiotics lecture you gave that afternoon and you still read it that way, then you are a dick.  And if your poem is not even about a comprehensible damn thing at all and you read it that way, then someone should walk up to the podium and punch you.

Then there are the poets who, wanting to show that they are not pretentious like the ghost-robot readers, read their poems like… well, like nothing.  Just jam their hands in their pockets, look straight down, exhale like they can’t believe it either, and then zip through the words on the page as fast as they can.  And then look at you and raise their eyebrows like, I know right, what the heck are we all doing here?  Well, why don’t you tell us what we’re doing here, asshole—it’s your reading.

What I am suggesting, and what I cannot believe is something I even have to suggest, much less something that will get people pissed at me for suggesting, is that if you are giving a poetry reading, you are just as responsible for showing the audience a good time as if you were a stand-up comic or a rock musician.  You are not showing them a good time in the same way of course, because you are not telling jokes or playing songs.  You do not necessarily have to make them laugh or make them scream.  But you should be trying just as hard to make them something.  And if they fail to experience whatever that thing is because they found it hard to pay attention, it is your fault.

It’s not like this idea is so radical or so foreign to poetry.  It is only foreign to contemporary poetry written by people whose poetics were formed by academia.  Do you think if you had a time machine and could attend a reading by Frank O’Hara, you would have to try really hard to pay attention?  Or Anne Sexton?  Or Ginsberg, Yeats, Millay, Whitman, Rimbaud, Dickinson, Byron, Pope, Donne, or Chaucer?  Every great poet is a personality.  What the audience should experience at a poetry reading is what we all once dreamt of experiencing at one, before we went to graduate school and learned that such expectations are neither intellectual nor modern: to feel that we are witnessing the daemon of the work made flesh.

I know we are supposed to act surprised when someone comes up afterwards to say they enjoyed the reading.  But we should not actually be surprised.  (If we’re not surprised, it’s only because we have come to understand that I really enjoyed that is just a polite way of asking So, what bar is everyone going to now?).  If it elicits genuine shock to find that one or two people in attendance at a poetry reading were anything other than miserable, then just what the hell do we all think we are doing?

What we think we’re doing, I imagine, is writing poetry, and then reading it as an afterthought, a matter of custom or ceremony.  We imagine readings as part of the business, but not of the craft, just as, say, the filming of a music video is not an aspect of music proper.  And yet, we acknowledge that a live performance very much is.  Perhaps not for Mozart or Beethoven, who composed in notation on paper what was then performed live by others, but even composers who are also performers (the norm for music during the lifetime of everyone reading this) still put thought and energy into the performance.  Though it may have been the custom in the culture of Homer or of the Beowulf author, no poet now writes with the intention that the work will be performed by professional readers trained in showmanship as a duty separate from composition.  If you do not perform your work, no-one else is going to.  But the fact that you “have to” do it yourself is no excuse to suck at it.

The fact that we do not consider reading to be a part of the job—or at least not an honorable part of the job, or one that obligates effort or training—is maybe best evinced by the fact that, to my knowledge, no MFA program mandates or even offers a course or seminar in how to give a good reading.  Although I’m certainly not suggesting that half of a poet’s training should be in showmanship, I think it both curious and telling that the giving of a good reading—or even the existence of a difference between a good reading and a bad—is never so much as mentioned at any point in the training.

Cal Bedient once said that a poem should always be pleasurable but that it should never be the first duty of a poem to entertain.  I not only agree, but consider the distinction to be one of the most valuable things I have ever heard anyone say about poetry.  But a poetry reading is not a poem.  To say that a reading should be genuinely engaging on the level of a musical performance, and that poets should work to make this so, is not to say that poetry should be composed with an eye towards wowing a crowd.

This, of course, is the error of Slam.  I have seen Slam poets who are unquestionably talented, but unfailingly the poems would be better poems had they not been composed with performance uppermost in mind.  The foreknowledge that a poem must take five minutes to recite while talking as fast as you can does not aid one in becoming a scrupulous self-editor.  On the other hand, I have never seen anyone fall asleep at a Slam either (pass out yes, but fall asleep no).

Just as Slammers are afraid to be accused of being too academic, poets who live and who compete for attention in academic circles (even if not actually employed as academics) are afraid to be accused of being too Slam.  The reason our readings are boring may not be because we do not know how to be interesting (most poets I know are not only avid rock fans, but can pontificate at length about rock history and aesthetic), but because we’re afraid to be accused of being a better reader than a writer: if you read your poetry in the most boring manner possible and people can still sort of stand it, that must mean it’s good.

This is not to say that a poetry reading should seek to emulate a rock concert.  Male poets need not read shirtless and in leather pants, nor female poets in coned bustiers (indeed, in the cases of most poets, this would be something very other than an inducement to attend).  But it is simply pathetic for us to persevere in our bizarre denial of the fact that, while giving a reading, a poet is a performer before an audience and should be held at least to some standards of what this supposedly entails.

The idea that our art is inherently more performable is supposed to be one of our advantages over people who write fiction.  If there is a joint reading where one reader does a few poems and another reads an entire short story, and people have less trouble not spacing out during the short story—and the short story is not about sex—then something is very wrong.

I do not see how it can be considered obnoxious for me to say this.  The alternative, after all, is to side with those poets who regard what they do as too special for the idea of putting thought into entertaining an audience even to occur to them, or to be taken seriously if it does.  Especially at a reading where people actually had to pay money to get in, this attitude is obnoxious far beyond anything I’ve ever said, and I say obnoxious things with no little regularity.

I admit it may justifiably seem somewhat obnoxious for me at such length to criticize poets for not giving entertaining readings, without offering one piece of advice on how to make their readings more entertaining, but I refrain from doing this for a few reasons.  One, all the ways I know of making my own readings so fabulously entertaining are mine, and you can’t have them.  And two, even if I felt like giving them to you, they would be useless to you, as you are not me.  Likewise, the most engaging readers I have seen did not necessarily engage in ways I could simply steal, as the most engaging poets are always engaging in ways specific to their work.  Not everyone’s reading avatar should be funny, or sexy, or angry, or baleful, or fragile.  But everyone should be something.  You need to look at what your stuff is doing and think of a way to create a personality around this that you can then act—yes, act—at readings.

And if you cannot imagine how your poetry could ever possibly be entertaining to an audience, no matter who is reading it or in what manner, then you might do well seriously to consider the possibility that you just suck at poetry, and ought not be writing it either.