Bukowski for President! David Biespiel and Poets for Democracy

from New York Times article, September 3, 1917

Pablo Neruda is perhaps the greatest example of a people’s poet, and he gained popularity through both his poetry and his public service. In the US, Langston Hughes was a people’s poet, writing in a vernacular that spoke to, for, and of democratic values. From his poem “Democracy” (1949): “Democracy will not come / Today, this year / Nor ever / Through compromise and fear.” Hughes’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in 1953, during the McCarthy era of harassment, certainly demonstrated this belief, and sealed his fate as poet and citizen, the kind of poet David Biespiel, in the May, 2010 issue of Poetry seems to be calling. Hughes was both poet and public figure, and the activities encouraged one another.

Biespiel’s call for poets to engage in the Democratic process of public discourse, service, and persuasion borrows its title from the Woody Guthrie song “This Land is Our Land.” Guthrie, like Hughes, spoke in a vernacular for and of his community. How many of the poets Biespiel addresses write in a vernacular that qualifies as a democratic language, in words that speak to, for, and of a community, in words that everyone understands? This would seem to be an important prerequisite for public discourse. Biespiel goes outside the US for his primary example, Vaclav Havel, whose “literary background…increase[ed] the moral authority he summoned in his civic and political life.” But Biespiel mentions Wendell Berry’s 1975 “The Specialization of Poetry,” reminding us of our favorite Buckminster Fuller theme: specialization leads to extinction. In short, today’s poets may be too narrow, not well-rounded enough in background, experience, or temperament to answer Biespiel’s calling, and they may be nearly extinct on the public discourse front.

In any case, one of Biespiel’s reasons for his claim that poets are best positioned to speak to democratic ideals, that “poets are uniquely qualified to speak openly in the public square among diverse or divisive communities,” is “poetry’s ancient predisposition for moral persuasion,” but we are not convinced that poets are any better equipped than the average citizen to persuade. But that is both the risk and the opportunity – and that being the case, poets had better say what’s on their minds, but not because they are any better equipped than the rest of us. “We permit free expression because we need the resources of the whole group to get us the ideas we need. Thinking is a social activity,” Louis Menand said in the close to his The Metaphysical Club. “Democracy is an experiment,” Menand concludes, “and it is in the nature of experiments sometimes to fail.” It’s that possibility of failure that gives poets the best reason to come out of whatever literary closet they happen to be writing in and develop a truly public voice to accompany their poetic vision and voice.

Meantime, we were thinking of what an all-time administration of poets might look like, and we came up with this draft (not all positions have been filled): President, Charles Bukowski; Vice-president, Marianne Moore; Secretary of State, Langston Hughes; Secretary of Commerce, Lawrence Ferlinghetti; Secretary of Labor, Bob Dylan; Secretary of Homeland Security, e. e. cummings; Presidential speechwriter and press secretary, William Faulkner; Secretary of Health and Human Services, Sylvia Plath; Attorney General, Wallace Stevens…. You get the idea. It’s not exactly what Biespiel was talking about, but try it with the poets you know. Maybe we’ll provoke a response.

Plato, Pablo, and the Poetics of Health Care

Plato considered poets dangerous and banned them from his Republic, and Il Postino (1994) illustrates his point, yet also shows that we are all poets, all who use language – to love and berate, to tackle and persuade, to testify and exhort. The movie, from the book Burning Patience, by Antonio Skarmeta, a fiction set on an island of Pablo Neruda’s temporary exile, is about the democracy of language, how metaphor permeates our lives, and the consequences inherent in desiring more than our own voices can bear, even through poetry. 

Is contemporary poetry outside the margins of popular US culture? Maybe, but the creation of metaphor is still the heart of language and language the heart of culture. In the film, this is ironically dramatized by Aunt Rosa. During her hilarious visit to Pablo to complain of his contributing to the poetic delinquency of Beatrice, she lets loose with an invective that ably employs a fishnet of metaphors to describe Pablo’s bad influence on Mario and Mario’s hypnotizing effect on her niece. The blame falls on the poet for stirring the emotions of the tainted republic of the island. 

Poetry sleeps around, moving through Plato’s five regimes. Democracy gives way to tyranny; Plato should have banned lobbyists – then maybe the Republic, though awash in a bath of poetry, might at least have a decent health care system, not to mention an adequate water supply.

Leslie Fiedler and the Either/Or Fallacy of Poetic Criticism

Perhaps there are only two kinds of poetry, still only two kinds of poems. Dichotomy makes for easy argument by eliminating all other possible alternatives. We often hear there are two schools of thought, and any ambiguity is quickly brushed away. The one poetry might be represented by T. S. Eliot, and is characterized by recondite allusion, objects removed to libraries for safe keeping, the other poetry represented by William Carlos Williams, and characterized by everyday objects close at hand, the red wheelbarrow, the icebox. How quickly though this argument ignores the actual words, as we forget Eliot’s elusive but simple, figurative cat hidden in the fog of Prufrock’s meandering thoughts, and we forget too Williams’s “The Yachts,” a poem that discourages an easy swim.

Leslie Fiedler, in his essay for Liberations (1971), “The Children’s Hour: or, The Return of the Vanishing Longfellow: Some Reflections of the Future of Poetry,” argues that there are two kinds of poetry, or poetics, identified by the poems we sing and get by heart, and the poems we must read and read again to recall, for the latter can exist only on a page, poems that Fiedler says are “…dictated by typography…; for it is a truly post-Gutenberg poetry, a kind of verse not merely reproduced but in some sense produced by movable type” (150). These poems are contrasted with popular song lyrics, automatically memorized, that simply don’t work when typed on a page. To illustrate, one goes to a poetry reading, where the poet himself appears not to have his poems by heart, since he must read them from pages; or one goes to a Bob Dylan concert, where the wandering minstrel still has all the words by heart. But Dylan Thomas, reciting from memory, singing unaccompanied, disposes the either/or fallacy of the poetry reading/pop-concert argument.

Speaking of either/or, last night’s snow, still a surprise this morning, has us thinking of our south Santa Monica Bay home again, where we were surprised and nostalgically saddened on a visit to Hermosa some time ago to find the old Either/Or bookstore closed. But then again, not surprised, for the either/or fallacy often leaves too much unresolved, fails to reach the heart of any poem, fails to hear the coming of the end of one song, and the beginning of another. The bookstore was now a clothing store; apparently someone fell into the old either/or fallacy of either books or clothes, but not both.

Me epistle on “Moopetsi meepotsi”

Whenever challenged with words unknown we go first to the OED then to Finnegans Wake. We did so this morning looking for meep, following yet another Language Log thread. We found meep in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, on page 276, in footnote number 4:

“Parley vows the Askinwhose? I do, Ida. And how to call the cattle black. Moopetsi meepotsi.”

A meep, then, is a calf, and a moop, the calf’s mom.

The moral of me epistle can be found in today’s Boston Globe, where the principal barning the word learns who abuses meep, steps in moop, for the pot (principal), trying to silence the kettles (students) back, starts them whistling, creating a word stampede:

“That was the first joke of Willingdone, tic for tac. Hee, hee, hee! This is me Belchum in his twelvemile cowchooks, weet, tweet and stampforth foremost, footing the camp for the jinnies. Drink a sip, drankasup, for he’s as sooner buy a guinness than he’d stale store stout” (p. 9).

Let the peeps meep, for as Robert Frost said, “…there must something wrong / In wanting to silence any song” (“A Minor Bird”).

Written after a visit to Language Log

We look forward to our daily dose of Language Log. Language has undone so many. This morning there’s a post on the mateless orange, for she can’t be rhymed, yet she’s not alone. 

          The Mateless Orange

The shelves are bare of rhymes for orange.

Not only that, but my dish is empty of porridge.

You’ve heard that girl before, right?

Orange is popular, purple not,

not even for Steven Earle.

For it’s rindlessness that’s comic.

But let me ask you something:

What the heck is this all about?

If you stop and think about it,

your head is jam-packed

with oranges,

with the curious result

that there are those who will find this an insult:

a banana is not yellow,

and the mateless orange rinds,

for she can’t be rhymed,

yet she’s not alone.

caMels, whEN to caPITalize, & concrEte POEMS

Over at Steamboats, Caleb Crain has lately expressed a concern over the use of camel case letters.

We are not opposed to the use of camel case in a corporate logo, particularly where Concrete poetry might find a place in commerce.

We went to An Anthology of Concrete Poetry (Emmett Williams, ed., 1967, Something Else Press), remembering some camel casing there, but spacing is a more prevalent tool. Remember that most of the old Concrete poems were chiseled out on manual typewriters.

The John J. Sharkey poem, “Schoenberg” (1963), is shown in the Anthology in two versions. The first (left) was rejected “…because the publisher does not use upper-case letters in his graphic production style.”

The second version was “interpreted typographically by Simon Lord…,” and Sharkey apparently liked it less than his original.

There’s often a reason for things like spacing, capitalization, reading silently – and then the reason becomes the rule, and remains the rule, even after we’ve forgotten the reason; then we might invent a new reason to support what we now don’t want to change.

Note: The title to this post is a Concrete poem, created with camels:

MEN PIT & Ete POEMS.

APA Caution: Metaphor Crossing

We don’t find E. B. White adhering to APA guidelines. It’s more palatable monkeying with rats if one denies them human characteristics.

One rule that hasn’t changed in the new 6th edition APA manual concerns a warning against the use of metaphor, specifically anthropomorphic connotations (p. 69). One may not use metaphor; the question is, can one not.

Camus avoided metaphor in The Stranger, creating an anti-man. For McLuhan, technology is metaphor, extensions of the senses. For Norman O. Brown, in Love’s Body, language is metaphor; to avoid metaphor is to avoid language: “Metaphor is mistake or impropriety; a faux pas, or slip of the tongue; a little madness; petit mal; a little seizure or inspiration” (p. 244). It’s easy to see why the APA wants to avoid it. On the other hand, “Freedom is poetry, taking liberties with words, breaking the rules of normal speech, violating common sense” (p. 244), in short, jazz. But metaphor is ambiguous, and that’s what we must avoid: “Psychoanalysis, symbolic consciousness, leads from disguised to patent nonsense – Wittgenstein, surrealism, Finnegans Wake” (p. 245). In “VII” of Love’s Body, titled “Head,” Brown lights out for the territory, ahead of all the rest: “Psychoanalysis shows the sexual organization of the body physical to be a political organization; the body is a body politic…a political arrangement arrived at after stormy upheavals in the house of Oedipus…a well-organized tyranny” (pp. 126-127). And if one wants to avoid sex, of course, one may go in for the corporate body, where the head sits at the top, and gets dibs on the first parking space.

Metaphor begins with sound, and poetry begins with being tricked by sound: “…cuckoo(‘s)fool, maid(en, mate, the Wryneck, which arrives at or about the same time as the cuckoo” (OED, mate).

So, in the 6th edition of the APA manual, we find this: “Correct: Pairs of rats (cage mates) were allowed to forage together. Incorrect: Rat couples (cage mates) were allowed to forage together” (p. 69). But, first, pair is no better than couple. Since the 13th Century, at least, the OED gives us, pair has been used to describe a married couple; indeed, the denotative meaning of pair is couple. Second, the offensive word in the passage (taking the APA view of metaphor as something to be avoided), is not pairs or couples, but mates, for a mate is one of a pair, a partner in marriage, a lover. The denotative meaning of mate, from the OED, is “A companion, fellow, comrade, friend; a fellow worker or business partner,” and only an E. B. White can handle a rat as all of these.

The poor rats, coupled in their cage, denied by the APA their very coupling, for, again, as the OED gives us, couple means “That which unites two. 1. a. A brace or leash for holding two hounds together.” Alone, together; together, but separate: like humans, a condition that can only exist in some cage, in cagey logic.

And what of cage? From the OED: “I. Generally and non-technically. 1. A box or place of confinement for birds and other animals (or, in barbarous times, for human beings), made wholly or partly of wire, or with bars of metal or wood, so as to admit air and light, while preventing the creature’s escape.”

Note “in barbarous times” suggests time past, but no longer: we wish, for language is our cage, a pair of gloves with a missing mate, a decoupling of experience.

If we want to avoid metaphor in the APA example given on page 69, we suggest: Rats were allowed to forage together, in cages, separated two by two. Lovely, isn’t it? Then again, were the rats allowed out of their cages to forage? Can one forage in a cage? Perhaps rats can, but still, an even greater problem than pair, couple, or cage is found with the word forage, for a forager is a messenger, though one may forage for oneself. Do rats “plunder, pillage, ravage” (OED, for forage)? No, only humans forage, as we have done here, within the cage of our blog.

Robert Frost and the LHC

We’re happy to hear the great collider is up and running again. The BBC informs us the LHC is “…one of the coldest places in the Universe.” And it’s right in our backyard, Universe speaking. “Colder than deep space,” the BBC says, like our downstair’s bathroom in the morning in late Fall before we finally give in and kick on the furnace. Colder than hell, we might add; we’re reminded of the Frost poem, “Fire and Ice,” first published in Harper’s Magazine, in 1920. The physicists working the LHC hope to gather evidence of the state of things immediately following the Big Bang, when Fire married Ice.

Styled Obsolescence: New Editions for APA and MLA

Style GuidesStudents often wonder aloud at the minutiae of publication manuals. New editions of both the APA and MLA classics were announced this summer. The APA sixth edition, trimmed to 272 pages, at least promises to lighten the backpack when compared to the heavyweight fifth edition, which weighed in at 439 pages – still no match though for our 1977 first edition, first printing copy of the MLA Handbook, a trim 163 pages. The new, 7th edition MLA Handbook is 292 pages. 

One looks for motive. MLA now suggests one space after a period ending a sentence, but one of the changes in the new APA manual returns us to two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence (pp. 87-88). 

There are of course other styles, but APA and MLA still appear to be the heavyweights, so when they announce a rematch, we want to be ringside. 

We learn to march in cadence; if what we want is a style of our own, one pervious to whimsy, we can always try poetry, the perfect antidote to the poison of style.

Yevtushenko Vinyl and the Freedom of Discernment

Jazz Readings in the CellarAgain at PCC, thirty years ago…. Several Russian students began dropping by my ABE workshop on a regular basis, for English lessons, and one day I brought a couple of record albums to class to play on our record player, a small cardboard box with a simple needle (the arm weighted down with a penny held on by a rubber band) that scratched across the grooves, spitting sound through a single tinny speaker. The albums were poetry readings. One of the records included Yevgeny Yevtushenko reading his poem “Babi Yar” with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The other album was Poetry Readings in the Cellar, with the Cellar Jazz Quintet, featuring Kenneth Rexroth and Ferlinghetti.

YevtushenkoI played the Yevtushenko, and during the “Babi Yar” poem, nine minutes long on the album, I noticed that one of the Russian students was crying. Later, I apologized, concerned that the poetry had suggested some bad memories. But that wasn’t the reason for his crying at all, he told me. It was the fact that we could listen to this record in our classroom without feeling any kind of fear. “What a country I have come to,” he said. “We can play this record in our classroom and no one even cares.”

It seems too cryptic to end this post there, yet there was no ambiguity in his meaning, but now, thirty years later, how does one care? At the risk of falling into a nostalgic fallacy, one does care; the current reading crisis, informed in part by changing technology, which in turn seems to be changing values (what we want), may soon have us yearning for a time when we had the freedom to read and write, and to talk and listen, and we tried to exercise that freedom with discernment.

Back to the Futurism – What’s new in Poetryland: Flarf, Conceptual Writing, and Concrete Poetry

An Anthology of Concrete PoetryWe cross the border into Poetryland. At the crossing the guards confiscate our miner’s helmet and swim fins, and ask the purpose of our visit. On holiday, sightseeing, see what’s new, we reply.

We head to the old haunts, and what do we find? Flarf, a portmanteau word that identifies a poem created from electronic detritus, a collage of bits of the web, a kind of Webarf, and Conceptual Writing, a back to the Futurism replay of Concrete Poetry.

While neither new form appears all that new, the infusion of humor, anti-seriousness, and wordplay are welcome (we wish a Poem Painting or two had been included). But we’re not sure if Flarf is a poetry of the Web, if the Web has found its poetic form, “…poetry that is native to that environment, written with the intention of being read there” (Crain, 17 June 2008).

A fickle subscriber for some years, our renewed subscription just arrived, and we were delighted to learn of Flarf and Conceptual poetry (July/August 2009).

Welcome back! Where have you been? the waitress at the Refugio Café asks. At the point the tide is out and the waves shoulder into the cove.

Williams, E. (Ed.). (1967). An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. Something Else Press: New York.