How to Write a Good Poem

May 4th, 2011

I’ve been working for a while on devising a mnemonic device that beginner poets could use to avoid the biggest mistakes that people who are new to poetry (or not necessarily that new) tend to make. I decided that, in our wacky modern world with its many differing opinions about hustle and bustle, this would best take the form of YouTube videos. I sincerely hope that these videos will be helpful to young poets, and also that they will catch the attention of that redhead who does accents, whom I have a crush on.

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

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.

Everyone around Me Is a Total Stranger: James Shea’s “Star in the Eye”

August 7th, 2010

Let me begin by saying that I am not 100% sure what James Shea is trying to do.  This is, natch, hardly a unique situation vis-à-vis holding a book of contemporary poetry in one’s hands.  I almost never know what the poet is trying to do, and I am someone who understands poetry for a living.  So my saying that I don’t get Star in the Eye (2008, winner of the Fence Modern Poets Series) is hardly an insult to Mr. Shea.  I suppose it’s not a compliment either, but here’s what is: I care about figuring it out.  And that part is unusual—with many contemporary books, I don’t just not get it; I also don’t care.  (With others still, I get it, but it sucks.)

Based on the fact that I seem to want to understand it, I will proceed from the optimistic assumption that Star in the Eye is not a book I don’t get, but rather a book that is about not getting things, which I understand perfectly.  (Yes, I know what the Fallacy of Imitative Form is, and I’m sure Shea does too, so let’s drop it, and anyway I’ve always thought that to be one of the stupider artistic fallacies, simply because you can’t argue with results, e.g., a bad movie that alienates the viewer because it is about alienation is bad, whereas a good movie that alienates the viewer because it is about alienation is good.)  Here is the first poem, which I like:

Turning and Running

The sun was backing away from me,
slowly, like one I have betrayed.
So I ran to the river to burn in it.
And they blocked the road with ambulances.

They gave me surgery on my mouth.
My eyes were packed with feathers,
and my whole face was painted flat.
An expert told me I was probably a joke.

There were at least four things
I should have said.  Do not step on the rug
with the live birds sewn into it.

It does a lot of things that lots of poems do, nowadays anyway, by which I mean that the speaker is sort-of imperiled, sort-of guilty, and sort-of kidding.  The good part about this poem is that it sets up the rest of the book very well, specifically the final phrases of the last two stanzas, which establish a) the question of whether Shea is kidding us, and b) the book’s propensity for giving genuinely valuable advice about things that make no sense.  The bad part about this poem is that the end is better than the rest of the poem put together.  This is, frankly, something that happens with fair regularity in Star in the Eye.  Here is perhaps the clearest example:

Idea of a Mutiny

The girls in groups
would not give me
their walkie-talkies.

I made a question
and brought it to the shore.

The only way I knew
how to get there was to think
I had gone too far
and to keep going.

The sea sort of gleeked on me.

Then I saw my dog
wake up last night—
Barking, defending everything
from everything else.

What’s wrong with a great ending?  Nothing.  And the rest of the poem certainly isn’t bad.  But when the end is so disproportionately good that it feels like a joke being played on the rest of the poem, something is off.  It’s like if instead of using it for “A Day in the Life,” the Beatles had appended a chaotic orchestral crescendo and final mushrooming E chord to, say, “Eight Days a Week.”

In summation, if one were to go through Star in the Eye and underline all their favorite lines, a preponderance of them would be closing couplets.  Is this a bad thing?  I have no idea.  But it is a thing I noticed.  It is worth mentioning, I suppose, because it is not usually characteristic of great poets, or great poems, that the best part is always at the end (to use the first example off the top of my head, the two closing lines of Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” are the best in the poem, but this is pretty much the only Yeats poem of which this is true).  It might be valuable to Mr. Shea to think about why this was the case this time around, and whether it was because of something he wants to keep doing or not.  Up to him.

Where is this coming from?  I have my theories.  I get James Tate vibes from Shea, and James Wright vibes as well, and both of these poets are more in the habit than are others of writing poems with Capital-E Endings.  But the best explanation is the thing that’s also kind of the whole point of the book, so sorry for not mentioning it yet: Shea’s (ironic? serious? he’s not sure, which I guess is fine?) obsession with haiku—not, of course, with the point-missing 5-7-5 definition we got in elementary school, but with the actual tradition of the Japanese masters.

I like the Japanese masters just fine (especially Kobayashi Issa, of whose work the above barking dog, or rather Shea’s gloss of it, reminds me, which may be why I like it so much), and I see what Shea feels he has to do with them.  Most importantly, I see (I think) how all this relates to the fact that I don’t get the book: there is (as I understand it) a superconcentrated conceal/reveal game at the heart of the haiku tradition.  All poetry, of course, plays with noumenon/phenomenon, but (the point of) haiku in this respect (is that it) is to “normal” (sorry) poetry in this respect as crack is to powder cocaine.  To read a (well done) haiku is to be slapped in the face by poetry—there is no process of experiencing it; it is of a moment, and it is impossible to say (or even think) “I am being slapped” until you already have been.

Shea is trying to spread this out over the amount of time it takes for a “normal” (sorry) poem to happen.   This, as I hope I have established by now, a) is admirable, and b) may or may not have worked.  It may even be the case that Shea knows that this does not—can not—work, and that the fact that it does not work is the point of the book, which strikes me as a) incredibly brave, and b) a little bit nuts, but what do I know?

There has been, of course, lots written about how Americans (well, Westerners, but especially Americans) can’t write haiku.  It’s unclear whether this is because our culture does, and hence our psyches do, not privilege the moment/season/image the way that some Asian cultures do, or simply because the darn things simply have to be (or, at least, originally have been) in Japanese, but in any case what’s on our plate here is nothing less than the “White Men Can’t Jump” of poetry.  (By that I meant the stereotype/quandary itself, and not Shea’s book specifically, but if you want to take it to refer to Shea’s book specifically I will not stop you.)

The first half (side one, if it were a record) of Star in the Eye ends with “The Riverbed,” a ten-page haiku and almost-haiku sequence about, well, the riverbed (it’s not just a clever name).  Unless it went over my head (beneath my feet?), this is exactly what it appears to be: James Shea writing completely unironic haiku about water and shapes and emptiness and potential and perception and—unironically, I will remind you once again—the Tao.  (I am aware that haiku are Japanese and Taoism is Chinese, but my expertise ends there, and so I have no sense of the extent to which there was/is commerce between the two traditions, but am sure Shea does.)  Taken at face value, the piece more-or-less succeeds: for whatever it’s worth, these are pretty good haiku that this white guy wrote in 2008.  Among my favorites:

Personal Riverbed

The water in that riverbed
Goes around that rock
Like a man
Who thinks he knows his wife.


Crossing the Riverbed

The duck
Plays with the river—
Knowing it could fly.

The collection ends with “Dream Trial,” another long sequence, this time of 29 (Shea’s age when he wrote it, maybe?  He was a bit over 30 when the book came out) still-sort-of-haikuish-but-not-actually haiku poems.  It is also quite good and, in light of Star in the Eye as a whole, is remarkable for two reasons.  Firstly, way more happens in it than in the rest of the book: rocks are hurled, animals are shot, gangs bust in, houses are burned down.  Secondly, “Dream Trial” seems to be a synthesis of what had heretofore been the two (very?) different types of poems that Star in the Eye contains.  There are bits of cutesy matter-of-fact alienation in the vein of Dean Young (who is always great, but whose back-cover blurb informed me of Shea’s poems that “their brevity is anathema to fragmentation,” which I am pretty sure did not help at all), e.g.:

She lives across the road from me,
where her family raises llamas.
I knew I was in for a real thrill.
Then my whole vacation got ruined
when I was held for ransom.
Suddenly a big thud happened in the rear.
Can you say heaven on earth?

…and bits of what appears once again to be life with the totally-not-kidding haiku goggles on, e.g.:

A rioter throws me a stone—
it is smooth in some places, puffed out in others.

I am sure it was.  As is (deliberately?) Star in the Eye.  I will wrap up by pointing out that “Dream Trial,” as the ending of the book, works a lot in relation to the book like the endings of the other poems in it do in relation to all their parts that aren’t the ends: it is the actual thing instead of the waiting for the thing, and as such, it is, if I may say so, better.  This may be presumptuous on my part, but then, if one gets the sense that the relationship between X and Y is that the whole point of X is leading up to Y, how can one not say that Y is better?  But here I may be speaking from exactly the kind of Western bells-and-whistles prejudice that James Shea has trained himself to shed and I have not.

James Shea’s Star in the Eye is James Shea’s Star in the Eye.  And yet, and yet…

Poetry Videos #1: “Admirable Fooling”

July 13th, 2010

Recently, I finally got around to doing something I’ve been thinking about doing for a long time–making a video for one of my poems.  I downloaded some free audio editing software and made a track of me reading it, and sent it to my friend Brian who does electronica and whatnot and had him add some electronica and whatnot.  Then I downloaded some free video editing software and made the video.

It probably won’t get as many YouTube views as if I had, say, kicked a fat kid in the nuts and filmed that instead, but maybe it’ll do alright.  If you dig it, please feel free to forward it around to other fans of contemporary poetry or weird shit in general.  It would be nice if this went viral, or at least viral enough for “poetry videos” to become a thing.  There are already slam performance vids on YouTube, but to my knowledge no-one else is making “videos” in the MTV sense for audio tracks of page poems.  Seems to me there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be doing this.

We’re a lot cooler than people think we are, after all.

Much a-Doob About Nothing? My Take on the Whole ‘Shakespeare Smoked Weed’ Thing

May 26th, 2010

ShakespeareI realize I’m not jumping into a hot new fray by tackling the question of whether William Shakespeare smoked marijuana.  The idea that he may have was hot stuff in 2001, when a South African archaeological team rooting around the Bard’s Stratford home uncovered some pipes that—apparently indisputably—contained residue not only of marijuana, but cocaine as well.  Obviously, Shakespeare was not the only person who ever lived in that house, but carbon dating has, to the satisfaction of people with more expertise than I in such things, established that the pipes belonged either to Shakespeare or to one of the two people who lived there immediately before and after him.  The reason I’m bothering with a blog about this is not because it’s news, but rather because, despite the fact that this has been out there for nearly a decade, every article about it is stupid (there are way too many to link to, but just Google the words “Shakespeare” and “marijuana”).  Since this is something that new generations of Shakespeare fans, lit students, aspiring writers, and overconfident stoners are never going to stop Googling, it seems to me that they deserve a decent article about it.  I can only hope that they manage to find this one.

Obviously, I’m not saying I know anything for a fact or am in a better position to prove my personal theories than anyone else.  But I do feel as if, at least, I know the right questions to ask.  Every source on this business I’ve been able to locate is far more sensational than scholarly, pitting old-guard educators who are sure that Shakespeare never touched the stuff against “High Times” types who are equally sure that he wrote every word of the plays baked off his ass.  As a well-trained poet, an English professor, a devoted Shakespeare fan who has read the man’s every surviving word, and yes, as someone who has been known to enjoy a bit of marijuana from time to time, I think I can do better.  Maybe, by the standards of the internet, “better” isn’t saying much, but here we are just the same.

I feel I should begin by pointing out that “The Whole ‘Shakespeare Smoked Weed’ Thing” is actually four questions:

1.  Did Shakespeare ever smoke weed at all, even once?
2.  If so, then how often, or for how long, or at what point in his life?
3.  What, if anything, did this have to do with the work he produced?
4.  Are there, as some have suggested, references to smoking weed in said work?

The first question is the easiest, and my answer to that one is Yes, and would still be Yes even if no-one had ever found those pipes.  We know that pot smoking was a thing people knew about and did in England in Shakespeare’s time.  As stoners are so fond of pointing out, lots of stuff used to be made out of hemp and it was a major cash crop.  We know from assorted references that Europeans of the 16th Century were well aware that you could get high from smoking it (the Catholic Church, for example, went to the trouble of making a rule against it about 80 years before Shakespeare’s birth).  And even if we didn’t have those references, history indicates it a safe bet that when people live someplace where something grows that can make you high, it doesn’t take long for someone to figure this out: even way back in the day, the people who lived where coca grew did cocaine, the people who lived where poppies grew did opium, the people who lived where peyote grew tripped on peyote, etc.  There seems to be no historical instance of people living someplace where something grew that could get you high and having no clue about it, and all of those other drugs are way less intuitive when it comes to figuring out how to get high off them than marijuana is (no drying, no melting, no grinding, you just pick the damn thing and smoke it).

Now, obviously, just because someone in a certain place at a certain time did a particular drug, that doesn’t mean everyone did.  But it’s not like Shakespeare was some square: he followed his dream to the Big City while still in his 20s, hung with artists, tapsters, pimps and hos, and seems to have gotten along with them just fine.  Partly, this was a professional necessity: historians have long since conjectured that, at least while he was still young and poor, Shakespeare would have done a lot of his writing in taverns, since candles were expensive and a bar was just about the only public place one could sit where it was light enough to write (furthermore, the quality and freshness of a commoner’s food was so poor that people were obliged to drink steadily all day simply to avoid being doubled over with digestive pain).  Certainly, enough of Shakespeare’s work celebrates the brassy bonhomie of one’s beloved local—most magically in the two parts of Henry IV—that it’s inconceivable he was a stranger to such haunts.  And if marijuana wasn’t present in the London dives where the artists hung out, then where was it present?

If anyone in 1590s England knew about smoking pot, then the young William Shakespeare would have been among those in the know.  The only way he wouldn’t have ever even tried it would be if he had some sort of principled objection, and there is no reason to believe he would have harbored any such reservations.  We know he enjoyed drinking, and was even proud of the fact: almost uniformly throughout Shakespeare’s work, jolly merrymakers are celebrated, and abstemious teetotalers ridiculed: the lovable Feste and Sir Toby make sport of the Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night, the earthy passion of Antony and Cleopatra is exalted above the cold nature of Octavian Caesar, and Love’s Labours Lost pokes fun at the impossibility of forsaking the desires of the body for a life of stoic philosophizing (in fairness, I should acknowledge that a notable reversal of this trend can be found in Hamlet, wherein the melancholy prince speaks nothing but daggers for both his mother’s passions and his uncle’s drunken “rouse”—but since Hamlet condemns just about everything that makes life worth living at one moment or another, a condemnation by Hamlet cannot automatically constitute a condemnation by Shakespeare).  And this wasn’t like the present day, where we’ve got this thick black “legal vs. illegal” line distinguishing alcohol from “drugs.”  There was no such thing as an “illegal drug” back then, and therefore no reason to expect that Shakespeare or anyone else would have regarded getting high on marijuana as somehow morally or materially different from getting drunk.  If anything, tobacco would have been the “weird new” substance on the block, since it had only just been discovered in the New World, but apparently everyone just said Whatever and started smoking that immediately.

It is a big leap, however, from acknowledgement that Shakespeare almost certainly tried marijuana once or twice to an assertion that he smoked it regularly and that it informed his work to the same extent that, say, LSD informed Sgt. Pepper’s.  And this is the point at which I must disappoint somewhat the pot enthusiasts who must have been so heartened by the last few paragraphs.  Whatever marijuana’s virtues, even its champions grudgingly admit that it is not exactly conducive to getting a massive amount of work done, day-in day-out, over extended periods of time.  But Shakespeare did just that: he wrote 38 plays, most of which are artistically and intellectually superior to everything else ever written by anyone, in just over twenty years, which works out to a rate of just under two masterpieces every year for his entire adult life.  And these were plays, remember, not novels or lyric poems, and writing a play is hardly all the work of putting on a play: Shakespeare ran and oversaw his own troupe and eventually his own theatre, and so had to deal with hiring and firing actors, coaching them and putting up with their crap, finding new set builders outside Home Depot at the last minute when the guys from yesterday showed up drunk, and all the other stuff people who produce theatre have always had to deal with, and oh by the way he also acted in his own and other people’s plays just for giggles and so had to turn up for rehearsal with everyone else.  In short, most of William Shakespeare’s day-to-day life for his entire career was taken up with bullshit that distracted him from writing, and he still managed to write… well, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.  If one thing is absolutely certain, it’s that this was not the life of a man in the habit of deciding that shit could wait until Monday.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say this sword cuts both ways, and that the above paragraph can be turned around on me—i.e., that if anyone who ever lived was such a genius that he could have done all that even though he was high, it was Shakespeare.  Fair enough.  But why would he have?  Have you ever gotten stoned right before you had to do something laborious all day—like going to your shitty job at Dairy Queen or something—expecting that being high would make it better, only to discover that, instead of making something tedious and boring magically fun, being high actually makes it even more of a pain in the ass?  Well, I would imagine that people who have jobs and know what pot is have been discovering the same thing for centuries.

Okay, so maybe it’s too easy to argue against the idea that Shakespeare was a daily smoker.  No serious people were arguing that anyway.  So what about the idea that, after Shakespeare had met with enough success to have underlings who dealt with bullshit and be able to spend more time writing in peace with his very own candles and everything, he judiciously incorporated marijuana into his process to some extent?  I find this argument more compelling.  After all, the pipes that started the debate were found at his home in Stratford, which he didn’t buy until 1597, around the time that he was wrapping up the Histories and getting underway on the greatest of the Comedies and on Hamlet.

However, I find nothing in the plays of this period aesthetically evocative of marijuana use (with the possible exception of the songs from As You Like It).  Remember, pot doesn’t make you funnier; it makes other people seem funnier to you.  The pastoral settings of the Great Comedies may seem “pot-ish” to us, but this is very much a modern association we foist onto the plays: the connection between marijuana and “back-to-nature” ideals is a largely a product of the 1960s, and Shakespeare was not only writing long before the ’60s, but 200 years before the Romantic Era that the ’60s cannibalized.  Most importantly, the elements that make the Great Comedies so Great are all antithetical to what someone writing stoned would come up with: there are more characters, more interwoven plotlines, more incisive battles of wits between fully developed personalities with far less broad caricature and physical buffoonery, and—most significantly—far fewer instances of a single character stopping the play to meditate on an isolated concept.  (Hamlet does this constantly of course but, paradoxically, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s only abstemious good guy, and his play is relentlessly sober; despite the similar sensations of being stuck inside one’s own throbbing head, there is a clear difference between being depressed and being stoned.)

As valuable as marijuana can be for composing outside the box on a word-to-word level, it does not lend itself to back-and-forths between two (or more) characters with distinct voices: it locks you in one mindset, albeit more deeply.  If there were a period where marijuana had something notable to do with Shakespeare’s process—and I’m not saying there definitely was one, but if someone told me for a fact that there were and asked me to guess when—it would have begun in around 1605, after the composition of Hamlet and Othello, but before King Lear and Macbeth.  The latter two tragedies are roomier, playing out in more of a psychological echo chamber.  There are fewer central characters, and those characters are more isolated from one another: in Lear, Lear goes off and does Lear things while Edgar goes off and does Edgar things and Edmund goes off and does Edmund things, and Macbeth might all just as well be a nightmare trip that Macbeth himself is having.  The verse itself is more anarchic too: speeches began incorporating tetrameter and trimeter lines, and rhyming internally and sporadically rather than either regularly or not at all.

Furthermore, Shakespeare’s track record from this point to the end of his career conforms to that of many other artists suddenly acquainted with chemical inspiration: a couple of new-style masterpieces right out of the gate (Lear and Macbeth), followed by uneven pieces containing isolated flashes of brilliance (Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale), and the inevitable utter shitstorm (Pericles), which prompts a back-to-basics reboot (Coriolanus), before getting it together for one last home run that feels like a more personal, laid-back version of the initial new-style masterpieces (The Tempest).  This would explain why Shakespeare began producing more slowly during this period—but then, this could just as easily be explained by the fact that he was already quite successful and could afford to take his time.  (Even with recent artists on whom we have infinitely more documentation, such questions are not easy: starting in 1966, the Beatles put out one album a year instead of two or three, and were both wealthy and on drugs, so was the decreased output because of the wealth, the drugs, both, or neither?)

But even if we accept on this admittedly slight evidence that Shakespeare smoked marijuana at all in the last phase of his career, this still certainly does not mean that he composed even one play entirely while stoned.  My estimation is that—if pot had anything at all to do with the composition, which I am not sure it did—the process was most likely to write plays sober and then fine-tune certain speeches while high.  As mentioned earlier, pot is good for going deeper into one voice, but not so good for switching back and forth among several.

There may also have been a “notebook writing” element to his process during this period.  Why assume, for example, that the Fool’s most riddling quips or the nightmarish litanies of the disguised Edgar’s mad speeches in King Lear were composed specifically to be spoken by those characters at those times?  Shakespeare may well have had a special “crazy shit” notebook that he worked in pre-contextually and then dipped into whenever he needed some crazy shit (the Fool’s “great confusion” prophecy, for example, is both totally awesome and doesn’t really have jack to do with what is going on in the play at that moment, and this goes double for the songs from the Comedies), and he may have only used drugs when writing in that.

Of course, this sounds good but proves nothing.  Arguments about which artistic works were “obviously” the result of experimentation with drugs can seem very compelling, but at the end of the day the only way we know that the Beatles smoked pot and took acid is because they came right out and told us they did (and as it turns out, the elements of the records that most aggressively evoke drug use were largely the work of producer George Martin, who didn’t take any).  There is also the phenomenon of the genius who uses drugs when he is not working: contrary to popular belief, Sherlock Holmes did not use his seven-percent solution to aid in solving mysteries, but rather to replicate the natural high of sleuthing when no game was afoot: so even if we found a secret compartment full of paraphernalia with Shakespeare’s name written on all of it in his own handwriting, it might still be the case that he only used when he wasn’t writing.

Speaking of the white stuff, although every article highlights the marijuana theory and virtually all the discussion has been limited to this—perhaps because people who want to believe that every famous historical figure smoked weed are simply a bigger market—you may remember that the press releases mentioned cocaine residue on the pipes as well.  Funnily enough, cocaine makes more sense aesthetically (in my opinion), but less sense historically.  The rapid-fire, pun-laden battles of wits that pop up in virtually all of Shakespeare’s best plays are much more evocative of cocaine use than of marijuana.  And the hand-in-glove relationship between Shakespeare’s obsessions and those of Sigmund Freud (who we know for a fact used cocaine) would seem to lend further credence to the notion that coke, rather than pot, was the Man from Stratford’s chemical assistant of choice.

The problem is, there is no historical evidence that cocaine (or, more accurately, the chewing or smoking of coca leaves, since the process for isolating cocaine as we know it wasn’t developed until the late 19th century) was in vogue in Shakespeare’s England.  The parts of South America where coca grew were under Spanish control and, though the Conquistadores knew about and used coca, they wouldn’t have been sharing with the English (Shakespeare’s career precisely spans the 25 years immediately following the Armada).  A few isolated stashes were doubtless appropriated en route by English privateers, but they would have become the property of the Crown, and anyone who wanted a fix would have needed friends in very high places.  The natures of drugs and money being what they are, it can safely be assumed that there were Spanish smugglers bringing coca places besides Spain, but this must have been rare, as coca doesn’t seem to have been big business in Europe: unlike with pot, the Church never said a word about coca, and if the Catholic Church was ignorant of something going down in 16th-century Spain, then said thing must have been going down very secretly and very rarely—and rare in Spain would have meant virtually non-existent in England.  Coke residue got on those pipes somehow, but it may have been a once-in-a-lifetime find, or the pipes may have been Spanish to begin with.

Finally, there is the fourth question: did, as so many of the articles about the finding of the pipes suggest, Shakespeare ever insert coded references to drugs in his work?  My answer to this one is Absolutely not.  Remember, we have to be careful of ascribing to Shakespeare modern motivations that would have made no sense to him: even if he did smoke pot, why would he have bothered to put hidden messages about this in his work?  So teenagers would think he was cool?  He was Shakespeare, not the Steve Miller Band.  It was 400 goddamn years ago.  If there are hidden messages in Shakespeare’s work, they are more likely to be about his sexuality or religious beliefs than about what he smoked—simply because he had no reason to think that people would ever care any more about what he smoked than about what hairstyle he had or where he bought his shoes.

There is also, not inconsiderably, the fact that all of the supposed pot references are obvious bullshit to anyone with even a cursory comprehension of the poems in which they appear.  It is, I suppose, to be expected that all the most famous “references” are in the Sonnets, the go-to source for everything “secret” about Shakespeare.  I am hardly the first to explain that this notion of the Sonnets as Shakespeare’s Diary is not supported by anything except our desire for there to be such a thing as Shakespeare’s Diary, but onward.

Nearly all the articles—and even the Wikipedia page about marijuana—make much of the reference to a “noted weed” in Sonnet 76, which also mentions “compounds strange.”  Such terms may be suspicious out of context but, unfortunately for everyone else who has ever written about this, I am actually capable of following this poem.

Why is my verse so barren of new pride?
So far from variation or quick change?
Why, with the time, do I not glance aside
To new-found methods or to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
….For as the sun is daily new and old,
….So is my love, still telling what is told.

Whatever the compounds strange are in line 4, the speaker is not only saying he doesn’t use them, but that every other writer does.  So this would only make sense as a drug reference if we accept that every poet in 1590s England was on drugs except Shakespeare, and that his intended audience was aware of this, which seems unlikely, and in any case the line would be about not doing drugs, rather than about doing them.  As for noted weed in line 6, that is more complicated…  Just kidding, it’s not complicated at all: it means “clothes.”  The argument of the poem, as you probably already know if you have gotten this far into a 4,000-word blog post about Shakespeare, is “Why do I keep writing about the same thing in the same style, instead of writing about fashionable new subjects in fashionable new styles?  Because I love you and realize that you are the only thing worth writing about, and so writing about you never gets old.”  The phrase keep invention in a noted weed means “continue to dress my creative output in the same clothes” (cf. Twelfth Night V.i.266 “And let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds,” i.e., feminine clothing).  Seriously, did the half-dozen reporters who cited this phrase bother to ask a Renaissance Lit professor about it first?  Or even, say, a high-school student who scored a 4 or better on the English AP?

The second-most commonly cited “hidden pot reference” is Sonnet 38, addressed to a mysterious Tenth Muse who dost give invention light.  Now, I guess I can’t prove that Shakespeare is not addressing pot here.  But I also can’t prove that he’s not addressing autoerotic asphyxiation.  The poem is addressed to someone or something that inspires the speaker.  Ostensibly, if every single other one of the sonnets is any indication, it is a someone.  (The early sonnets were commissioned by patrons, and what patron would have been paying Shakespeare to write poems addressed to marijuana—Duke Woody of Harrelson?)  If this is a fake-out and it is a something, then there are a million other things it could just as likely be as marijuana.  Why, for example, is it any more likely to be about marijuana than alcohol or tobacco?  The fact that there are no even halfway-credible references to pot anywhere else in the works makes this even more dubious: why randomly compose one sonnet entirely about how amazing marijuana is, and then never mention it anywhere else even once?  If popular music is any indication, artists who talk about pot at all tend to talk about pot often.  And why even keep it a secret when it wasn’t illegal?  I guess Shakespeare was just trying to hide how heartbroken he was when marijuana left him for a Rival Poet in Sonnets 78-86.  Oh, wait, marijuana can’t leave you for someone else.  I guess these are about a person after all.

In summation, I would be very surprised if William Shakespeare never smoked marijuana even once, but am also convinced that he didn’t find this as big a deal or as defining a personal attribute as modern pot enthusiasts seem to, and certainly didn’t bother dropping hints about it in his work.  Whether he smoked pot with any regularity is anyone’s guess, but it seems incontrovertible that if Shakespeare did smoke regularly, he did so either extremely judiciously as one aspect of a carefully regulated creative regimen, or only very occasionally for recreation purposes in the brief and infrequent windows during which he was not working.  It is certainly possible that marijuana had some influence on his work, but there is no indication that it was any more responsible for his style or worldview than alcohol was, and indeed a good deal of evidence that Shakespeare simply preferred drinking.  The unmatched psychological insights in his work point to an author who was not only a “people person,” but a peerless observer of the habits and linguistic animi of every personality type imaginable.  This is inconsistent with the habitual stoner’s propensity to live inside his own head: if Shakespeare did make use of weed creatively, he almost certainly came to it late enough in life that it represented a final twist on an already fully formed observational and compositional ethic.  Had marijuana been important to Shakespeare’s artistic development from an early stage, he would have composed a greater number of meditative lyrics, as opposed to being apparently uninterested in them (even the Sonnets work far more like philological proofs rendered in verse, rather than “explorations” of “sensation” like, say, Keats’s Odes).

But I am completely sure of one thing, and it is the thing I consider most important to say on this subject: the question of whether mind-altering substances were a part of Shakespeare’s process is a valid one, important not only to literary scholars or historians but a form that falls across every human being’s sense of the relationship between his or her mind and the world it attempts to perceive.  If Shakespeare did use drugs, would he have been less good without them, or only different, and different how?  Or might he have been better without them and, when talking about Shakespeare, what could “better” conceivably even mean?  If Shakespeare smoked pot, does that prove that everyone should?  As with musings upon whether the phenomenon of existence itself was unavoidable or accidental, these are matters about which we can construct very beautiful arguments that reveal a great deal about ourselves the arguers, but next to nothing about their supposed objects.  They must be approached at once with infinite faith and infinite doubt.  Grade-school jailers who would subjugate Shakespeare to ideals of social propriety and counterculture dilettantes who would subjugate him to ideals of quick-fix rebellion equally do damage, not merely to Shakespeare but to the human experiment that is his lengthening shadow.

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

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?

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.

Put My Thing Down, Flip It and Reverse It: Lucy Ives’s “Anamnesis”

March 22nd, 2010

Lucy IvesMaybe the most important things I can say about Lucy Ives’s Anamnesis (winner of the 2008 Slope Editions Prize) are that it is the first full-length book of poetry I can remember reading in one sitting, one of the very few that made me cry, and the only by a poet of my generation that I’ve ever argued about with friends for twenty minutes in a bar.  There are many other things to add—about the ways in which the poetry behaves and why it might be that these ways work so well—but they are not the reasons you should buy the book (which you should).

As you might already know, Anamnesis is that poetry book everyone (relatively speaking) is talking about where the poems say Write and then something in quotation marks and then Cross this out and then something else and so on, e.g.:

You can write “Do you want to go together?”
Cross out “together,” write, “as a pair”
Cross out “pair,” write, “way of seeing if what we originally thought
….about the neighborhood is true”
Cross this out
Write, “The beech forest was not that beautiful, because I was
….embarrassed about other people there seeing me”
Say, “Why were you embarrassed?”
Cross out “embarrassed,” write, “feeling lonely”
Cross out “not that beautiful”
Write, “a place where people wrote names on the trees”
Say, “Who were they?”
Cross out “about,” write “for”

The idea that one must always read a poem twice is taken care of here, as you have to read each movement of a poem three times at least to read it even once.  Perforce, you don’t read through the poems so much as loop through them, gaining and sliding back and gaining again like the snail in the well in the riddle.  It’s a lovely effect, absolutely lovely, and I don’t go around calling things “lovely” every day.  Independently of anything the technique could be said to “mean,” I hope you’ll agree that the above excerpt is intensely pleasurable.  Speaking for myself, I additionally find it (and the poems in Anamnesis generally) genuinely beneficial in what you could call a meditative sense, and postulate that one’s favorite poems in Anamnesis, if kept handy, could actually stop a panic attack.  I can think of few compliments that cut more directly to the core of what it almost certainly is that poetry is supposed to be for.

But as for the technique, just to prove that I can address it as well as anyone, which is after all why most critics spend more time addressing it than they spend informing you that the poems are awesome, the first poem begins:

Suppose we write the sentence, “Paul had a very great mind”
….the restaurant”
We might add, “whose sign is in the shape of a sleeping deer”

So we start off echoing Camille Paglia’s observation about Emily Dickinson, i.e., that she always says “brain” instead of “mind” (as well as, if I’m right about this being deliberate, the Ben Franklin anecdote about the sign outside the hat store), the difference being that a mind is an intangible function of a brain, whereas a brain itself is a material blob of stuff that can be dropped on the floor and smushed.  Similarly, a poem (the effect) is an intangible function of a poem (a series of marks on a piece of paper).  What we are doing here is observing brain surgery, probably from the little tilty-windowed skybox from which TV has taught me such things are observed.

Another way of putting it is that we are in a poetic version of a Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) script.  And just like how during a Kaufman movie you begin to think after a while This is really cool but if the whole thing is like this it will get precious and annoying, you begin to worry the same thing here.  And also just like a Kaufman movie, Anamnesis is too smart for that mistake, and the thing you are afraid is going to get annoying becomes something just different enough to be even more awesome right at the perfect moment, without altogether becoming something else.

During the third section, in which poems begin to out themselves as being about the death of Ives’s father, the Writes and Cross this outs remain but recede, cropping up more as punctuating sucker punches than a constant device.  These middle sections—such a complete blindside after the reader was so secure of being in “OMG fun gamez with language” territory that I feel I should have begun this paragraph with ((SPOILER ALERT))—are so internal that it feels like one of those scenes in a movie where someone goes deaf, and yet manage to come off as not the least bit inside baseball, but rather so, so—how shall I put this?—generous.

Write, “You made good choices, good good choices”
And the love of teachers, well, that is like the green
….bower in a tale
Even they are not in place
Not for so long
Cross this out
The world just slips over itself and then what was isn’t
Recognizable but no longer to be known
And that transparent man at my shoulder
Carrying within him a lazy boat and all the

This generosity is possible because the literary device that shapes the book is, quite flatly, not a literary device at all but rather a way of making real life bearable by disguising it as a literary device, i.e., all that literary devices were ever supposed to be anyway.  Though people who labor under the misguided impression that this is a compliment will insist that Anamnesis is poetry about poetry, it is not.  And although the book is imagist and meditative—there is definite haiku vibe, which combined with the fragmentary architecture gives its longer poems the feel of renga composed among a court of one—neither is it simply about the experience of being alive, but more specific that that.  Once Anamnesis really gets cracked wide open, it feels as much as anything like a book about the Oughties.  Consider:

Write, “The woman was saddled with debt, on the bus”
Cross this out
Write, “It’s not enough simply to say the things”
They have to go in an order
Cross this out
Write, “That is the problem, in a world in which order is both present
….and not”


In being leaders, did they want to keep being leaders?
It’s a question like, in telling the story, did I want to
….keep on telling it?
What if it were to remain unfinished
Infinite, in this sense
Granted it’s only a very narrow sense
Cross this out

But the politics never displace the individual here.  Ives is writing not about our times but rather our generation’s experience of our times, leaving room for little gems like the following, one of the most efficient and memorable poems about the fear of aging I’ve ever seen:

Write, “There was a lamp lit in the room behind her”
Write, “The time is 11:15 in the morning and a sheet of
….wind before the window”
Cross this out
Write, “27 plus 5 is only 32”
Cross this out

In keeping with the theme of aging and the device of time, the book’s last two words—“older now”—of course continue being true.  And in keeping with the theme of death, until they’re not.

I’m not sure where poetry this remarkable comes from.  One of my friends in the bar said that Ives here reminds him of Marina Tsveteava, which is such a good observation that I won’t try to take credit for it myself.  My own initial reaction was that, particularly in the last half, Anamnesis reminds me of early Pound, which is odd, because I really like Anamnesis and I don’t particularly like early Pound.  But then I went back to early Pound afterwards and for some reason I like it now.  Weird.  I’ll also toss out that the book puts me very much in mind of Jane Siberry’s When I Was a Boy, the album she did in 1993 with Brian Eno (the one with “Temple” and “Calling All Angels” on it, although re the similar vibe to Ives I was thinking more of the tracks “Sail Across the Water” and “All the Candles in the World”).

If you’re thinking that this sounds like smoke and mirrors, and that all the anaphoric Writes and Cross this outs are merely a device tacked onto what are surely just series of disjointed epigrams that wouldn’t be any great shakes alone (as in, say, “America” by Allen Ginsberg, which actually is, to a great extent if not utterly, smoke and mirrors for exactly that reason), your skepticism is understandable—that’s how I would react to a project like this if I were hearing someone describe it instead of reading it for myself.  You’re right that it shouldn’t be as good as it is.  But it is.  The Writes and Cross this outs shouldn’t—certainly not by the last half of the book—be able to do as much work as they (evidently) do, but they do.  And in my experience, when I’m looking at something that, based on everything I think I know about poetry, shouldn’t add up to being much good, yet somehow ends up being brilliant, it means that what I’m looking at isn’t just brilliant, but genius.

Natch, this all runs the risk of being pigeonholed as “work about the process” (you know, the pro-cess, as pronounced in the ghost-robot voice), and while that’s there for people who want it, it also, as far as I’m concerned, totally doesn’t matter (how much it matters having been the subject of the twenty-minute argument in the bar now referenced several times).  As far as the Person Who Didn’t Go To Grad School Test goes, a person who didn’t go to grad school would still read these poems and go “Hey, this is cool” instead of “What the fuck is this shit?”, and that’s really all I need to say about the pro-cess.

Likewise, it will be impossible for anyone to write a review of Anamnesis without using the word erasure, and a good number will offer that the book is about how “utterance is impossible.”  I decline to take this route, for a few reasons.  One, the fact that you are holding in your hands a book of poetry that is real good means that, duh, utterance is actually not impossible.  And two, no critics (or at least far fewer of them) would be saying that if the book were by a man.  The “utterance is impossible” line is an (ahem) “compliment” we give to female/minority poets to signify that their work is morally acceptable, i.e., un-hegemonic, or whatever.  But I don’t see how it helps female/minority poets (or poetry in general) to act like any experimental thing they do is by design this weird Bartlebyish side-stage performance because they’ve figured out that poetry proper is either evil or doesn’t actually exist or both.  If a poem, of any nature, is good, then it is poetry proper, and the poems in Anamnesis are beyond good.  How the hell could one of the best books of poetry I’ve read in years constitute a protest against poetry?

I was being deliberately ignorant a moment ago: this line, of course, does help the poets about whom it is used because it provides their work a stepping stone to academic usefulness, i.e., visibility at all.  Saying “Hey these poems are really awesome don’t you enjoy reading them and oh btw they say cross this out a lot and the author happens to have a uterus but so what?” does not render a book useful to the fashionable pedagogy, but ignoring the first observation and making the last two the whole point does.  Probably we are all in agreement that poets should not compose with an assist to the fashionable pedagogy in mind—but after the composition comes the handling, and if all the handlers handle with assists to the fashionable pedagogy in mind, then incalculable amounts of damage to the art are done just the same.

Ives, I would certainly imagine, did not compose the poems in Anamnesis with anyone’s pedagogy in mind, but composed them purely to be awesome, and they are.  I shudder at what other reviews have done and will continue to do, but Ives herself must not be blamed for this.  She is a woman poet who had a cool new idea, and this means that most of the reviews are going to be annoying.  The only things Ives could have done to stop them would be to not be a woman or not have cool new ideas.  If you think the way that other people discuss her book is annoying, then the best thing for you to do is buy her awesome book, and then maybe people will start writing poetry reviews with you in mind instead of aiming them exclusively at annoying people.


Guaranteed to Blow Your Mind: Karyna McGlynn’s “I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl”

March 19th, 2010

Karyna McGlynnThe epithet “eagerly anticipated” where poetry is concerned is often assigned but almost never true.  With Karyna McGlynn’s major-press debut I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl (Sarabande, winner of the 2008 Kathryn A. Morton Prize) it was, at least in my case.  McGlynn’s 2008 chapbook Alabama Steve was the only collection by a poet of my generation that I genuinely could not put down (if you’re having trouble imagining how that could possibly be the case with poetry, read it for yourself).  Where IHtGBt1994&KaG is concerned, Alabama Steve devotees expecting another volume of sex-drugs-and-pop-culture wisecracking from McGlynn will be disappointed—at least, in the same sense that Beatles fans expecting another album of radio-friendly power pop were “disappointed” by Rubber Soul.

In other words, everything you liked about McGlynn’s indie stuff is still here, plus.  The “plus” is, as implied by the title, a murder mystery of sorts: although not every poem “advances the plot” per se, the book is a narrative, at least in the way that Borges’s Garden of Forking Paths was a narrative.  McGlynn has more than one self here: a childhood version, and an adult version that, whether by growing backwards Merlin-style or time traveling Terminator-style, is hanging around to watch the former and, eventually, kill her—just as, one concludes, we all effectively “kill” the child we once were by growing up.  The first poem begins:

I wake up somewhere in Ohio.  Or, that’s how it smells—

There’s a phone in my hand.  I’m thirty years old.
No, the phone is thirty years old.  Its memory’s been erased.

I’m naked but for one of those hollowed scarves.
It keeps peeling off like a seedpod.

I’m afraid my sense will fall out,
get lost in the snow and make more of me.

The suddenly appearing somewhere else in time naked may be a deliberate Terminator nod, and if so it’s brave and hilarious, but since McGlynn’s pop references are far more subsumed here than they were in Alabama Steve, we can’t be sure.  And it’s hardly the last time we won’t be sure about something.  There is that section of a horror movie about a quarter ways in, where things have stopped being conspicuously normal but have not yet become horrifying—the stretch where close-ups of everyday objects linger too long while music starts and stops and then starts again more quietly.  McGlynn effectively establishes a textual version of this early on (even appropriating horror-film symbols, as in “A Red Tricycle in the Belly of the Pool,” one of the standout poems), and sustains it agonizingly well.  Hitchcock’s definition of suspense was, duh, you suspend something, and does she ever.  The ominousness is ominous of even more ominousness.  This being contemporary poetry, and in a book where futzing with chronology is half the point, there is not a payoff exactly—we go from something’s gonna jump out right to something has evidently already jumped out, and just what the hell jumped out and when and who it got is a matter for subsequent readings (which will occur, which is after all the bottom line).

Sometime in the Night a Naked Man Passes

the foot of my bed in a beekeeper’s mask
con permiso, he says, they like to lay eggs in my face
where are you going, I say
the women in my life, he says, stroking the bedpost
who let you in, I say
I watch for expressions in his belly, his cock
both curve out, back in, his even breathing
a bee enters my open window & lands on his thumb
I’m sorry, he says, I was just leaving
where were you going, I say
to finish what they started, he says

As in Alabama Steve, McGlynn is still being rained on by culture both pop and poetic.  But while Steve’s shout-outs were rapid-fire and comic-chaotic, like one of those Dylan songs about a goofy dream, IHtGBt1994&KaG is all about the tease.  In the above, the reader is doubly shocked by both the scene and by McGlynn’s ballsy borrowing of Plath’s nefarious beekeeper.  She knows she’s earned him, and keeps him around for the duration of the brief poem, neither she nor he doing much of anything.  It’s poems like this, incidentally, of which there are many (i.e., equally good and equally creepy), that have prompted other critics to interpret IHtGBt1994&KaG as an obliquely confessional book about abuse or molestation or whatever.  As many contemporary readers of poetry are so obsessed with victimhood that they think the leaves are being molested when the wind blows, this is not surprising—but I disagree.  The book is a psychosexual chiller, certainly, and McGlynn is starring, but also directing—she’s Hitchcock just as much as she’s his imperiled icy blonde, if not more so.  The abuse theorists are seeing less than half the picture.  IHtGBt1994&KaG is a whole horror movie in the head—because growing up is one—and as the head in question is McGlynn’s, she naturally plays every part: the doomed slut, the virginal Final Girl, the red herrings, and the killer h/im/er/self.

The trappings of girlhood are omnipresent and ironicized, in a very Liz-Phair-ish sort of way.  But as this is horror (Liz Scare?), said trappings are those of the girlhood occult: mirrors, Ouija, light-as-a-feather-stiff-as-a-board.  It’s a Slumber Party Massacre with only one guest.

But it’s not like this is some Joycean puzzle where you have to keep scrupulous track of symbols etc. to get anything out of the book.  There are plenty of radio-friendly standalones, e.g., how can you not love a book with this poem in it?:

“Would You Like Me to Walk Your Baby?”

I said to the couple on the airplane.
Don’t worry; I won’t drop him.  I’m a dancer;
I never drop anything.  Besides, I’m good with babies;
………………………………..I have big breasts and big eyes.
He’s just having a little altitude earache.  I’ll bounce him
on my huge breasts and sing something underneath my breath.
We’ll just take a little stroll down the aisle;
let you two get some shut-eye.
Sure, it’s narrow, but so am I.
………………………………..I have no hips to speak of.
Give me your baby, I said with my widening smile,
my enormous breasts, and my pointy pointy shoes.

Conversely, there are poems here that one must figure out how to read—as in literally, on the page, figure out how to read: in two columns, then three, then cross-hatched, tending to get more fragmented as the book progresses (as the, what, tear in the space-time continuum gets bigger?).  Some critics will be tempted to say that this is “vaginal” or some junk.  Whatevs.  Theory aside, these poems effectively heighten the trippy alienation at well-timed moments in the book’s progress.

They Shared Her on a Chicken White Sheet

and called her erin
winter……………………………who once was a soprano II
but moved to Minneapolis instead……………….in spite
…………………………………………….of her ankle tattoo
made a sound like filigree in fresh
powder…………………………..when they ratcheted her up
to their level and one boy said………………….you see this?
…………………………………………….and the other said
can it dance?  what with her whorl
of black…………………………..egg hair she’s ductile as a shoat
no sleigh of hoarfrost on the swiss…………….sloped roof
…………………………………………….and the sweetest
thing she wasn’t full
of parting shot…………………..and at least they still had her
pom socks to look forward to……………………that’s one thing
……………………………………………..about swing dancers

This is a formally experimental poem, and one of the best in the book.  It reads like Anne Sexton in a blender.  But it bears mentioning that, this one aside, the experimental poems in IHtGBt1994&KaG are less good than the less experimental ones—by which I simply mean that, in most cases, if I were showing the book to someone unfamiliar with McGlynn and they opened it to one of the chopped-up poems, I’d grab the book and say “No, not that one.”  But certainly, IHtGBt1994&KaG would not be IHtGBt1994&KaG without them, just as, say, The Unforgettable Fire would not be The Unforgettable Fire without the jams that swirl around the radio songs.  Karyna McGlynn has written a book of poems that is to be taken from start to finish like a concept album, and this is as impressive as it is risky.  Without all the opaque mindfucks, the book would be a less impressive achievement as a whole—but, on the other hand, it might contain even more individual poems that I really, really like.  But it was McGlynn’s call, and she made it.

On a similar note, the best poems in IHtGBt1994&KaG—“Amanda Hopper’s House,” “‘Would You Like Me to Walk Your Baby?’,” “They Shared Her on a Chicken White Sheet,” “We Both Dyed With Feria Starlet, I Couldn’t Dispossess a Girl,” “I Show Up Twelve Years Late For Curfew”—happen to be the ones that have the least to do with the overarching plot about achronological self-murder.  They explore the same emotional territory, but beyond that are simply excellent poems that happen to be in this book.  (This is not a flaw, just a technique—most of the songs on Sgt. Pepper don’t have anything identifiable to do with Sgt. Pepper, but who cares?)  At least, as far as I could tell.  For all I know, the fourth time around I’ll finally realize that these poems give away giant clues (or something).   In any case, I mention this in order to implore McGlynn to remember that, as hard as she can make blurbers cream themselves by experimenting, what she does best is write excellent stand-alone poems that are more-or-less comprehensible.  As many of my ten favorite Karyna McGlynn poems are in Alabama Steve as in IHtGBt1994&KaG, and any critic who doesn’t tell her the same is either afraid to say so, or has not read Alabama Steve, or is just a shithead.

This will continue to be an issue for McGlynn.  Having had some experience in the Slam scene in addition to her formidable academic resumé, and clearly someone who enjoys writing enjoyable poems, she has chops as a cackling pro-domme of pop, which at least to my way of thinking is a compliment.  But she is climbing the university ladder fast, and will face increased pressure (especially, sad to say, as an attractive woman) to distance herself from the pop fireworks and produce more work that will endear her to the Deludez & Fucktardi crowd.  She is said to be at work on a book-length poem for her follow-up, and I sincerely hope it is a fun book-length poem, as I feel it would be a mistake for a book by Karyna McGlynn not to be at least a little bit fun.  Too many poets who produced rockin’ first books in the late ‘90s and early ’00s bowed under academic pressure and crapped out subsequent volumes of passionless nonsense, and it would be a legitimate tragedy if McGlynn fell into the same darkness.  Especially since, if she sticks to her guns, she will likely wind up credited as one of the poets chiefly responsible for finally bringing the Academic Age to a most welcome end.

I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl is a deft and twisted little book about death, and it will reap academic accolades for its formal innovations, and anyone who has any sense about poetry will like it very much—but its author must not abandon the elements that made her indie stuff so dynamically alive.  As she has just plainly shown us, Karyna McGlynn has no trouble producing books that will please nonacademics and (reasonable) academics alike—but so far, her poems have always had to choose who to please more.  Someday she will produce a book where not only the book, but every poem in the book pleases both equally.  And that book will be one of the defining poetry collections of our generation.

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

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.