I tossed and turned sweaty late one night having not been able to get to sleep because I was wondering about the night sky, my birth, my being, and my death. I must have been seven. If my dad had been an astronomer or a biologist, I may have become a scientist, but I have no regrets there. I went downstairs, woke my parents, and told them of my thoughts. My dad was a working-class guy and simply dismissed me with, “go back to bed and go to sleep.” I went back to bed, but of course, could not go back to sleep until the sun came up and then it was breakfast time. My wondering became bedrock and my dad’s response confirmed for me that this is where my identity, separate from his, lay. The experience was vital to setting me on my path to poetry.
I am certain many have had a similar experience to the following one. However, because of who I was at the time, it was important to my growth. In fifth grade, I wrote and drew the contents of a magazine. I would make two or three of the same “issue” and pass them around the class. The positive feedback (whether sincere or out of politeness) I received pushed me further into using my imagination and expressing its results. Though this was a small event, common perhaps, it set me on a course that would a few years later solidify my decision to write my whole life. I can remember thinking at a very young age that all I needed was a pencil (even a stubby one) and a little paper, and I could write anywhere. My second experience was perhaps an experiment in acting out the roles of writer and publisher.
In D. H. Lawrence’s short story “Rocking Horse Winner” a house that spoke to a small boy who rode his rocking horse to determine which horse would win at the horse races. The house kept repeating “There must be more money!” I have always related to that story because my house spoke to me all while I was growing up. What it said was perhaps my subconscious reason for ignoring the practical aspects of life, fighting working class ideas and pushes that my father used in his attempt to persuade me to go into a trade or later seek a career in journalism. The house kept telling me, “Everything was going to be alright.” It said this because my parents lived this way. They lived as thought everything was going to be alright and it was … for them. Though my parents lived modestly, my mother’s dad bought the land and built the house I grew up in. He worked hard all his life and had saved so much money that almost 50-years later my mother continues to receive sizeable monthly checks from her trust. She is now 88. Everything was not going to be “alright” of course. My “golden boy” assumption was upended when the family’s financial reality was made into mythology through ignorance with money matters by the trust fund’s first generation.
When I was 13, my mother’s brother who was the “golden boy” and to be a trust fund inheritor was hit by a trailer truck and killed. Joe dabbled in the arts and wrote while also struggling with brain cancer. He was very kind to me while I was young and got me interested in outdoor sports. For me at the time he was my mentor. For birthdays and Christmas, I had received fishing poles, footballs, etc. In fact, my adolescent mind noted that he was 33 when he died, the same age a Christ. That is how powerful his influence was for me at 13. Along with his other arts equipment (easel, brushes, paints, typewriter, and trumpet), I received a memoir manuscript of his father who remains the hero of the family mythology and perhaps rightly so. My receiving the typed pages in a deep manuscript box was as though I were receiving a relay baton in a relay race of life and death significance. His death propelled me further down poetry’s road. The death of my uncle, my hardworking grandfather soon after, and then the deaths of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King shook my adolescent world. These deaths woke me to my own time limitations on this planet if the sweaty nights hadn’t already done that.
When I teach poetry workshops to undergraduates, I sometimes suggest that students ask their subjects “What is this situation, really” or “What is this subject, really?” I then include exercises that required students to extend these metaphors. I also use exercises that required students to list metaphors and edit the list to create poems. They then compose titles that they think are the metaphorical threads running through the list poems they had created. These two exercises are useful in getting students to begin to understand that poetry was more than emotion on paper, and I explain to them that these two approaches are two ways poems can be composed.
The exercise below works well to introduce poetry to students who major in other disciplines and who take a poetry writing course to experiment with language. It is also effective for the serious young poet. (The two exercises comprised an earlier contribution of mine to the Pedagogy papers of AWP in the late 1980s and early 90s. I share them for what they are worth to readers.)
1) Ask students to choose poems that speak to them. They will need to feel confident that they have a clear understanding of the poem.
2) Ask students to locate a metaphor in their poems or identify what they believe to be the central metaphor in their poems that in particular speak to them.
3) Ask students to respond to the perceived metaphor either by using the metaphor themselves, assimilating the poet’s idea or by reacting to the metaphor and creating a metaphor of the student’s own.
4) Ask students to elaborate on and add to their initial, short drafts.
5) To assist the student in assimilating what they have performed through the assignment, ask the students to write an assessment of what they were trying to achieve in their poem.
The exercise I have outlined below is one for the more advanced student who is beginning to understand that to write poetry is enter a conversation in a long tradition and thus includes ideas.
A Step Further: Writing a “Found Poems” Poem
A more challenging exercise is to ask students to read an author’s works and gather metaphors, irony, and images on the author’s more frequent subject. Ask the students to compose poems using the author’s words only or with as few lines as possible by the students. You may even use this assignment as a collaborative exercise by the class.
“A decent chemist is twenty times more useful than any poet” –Turgenev
"There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing.” – Celan
I have been thinking of opening a small store-front with a sign that reads “A Poet, Make of a Conversation What You Will.” I would charge $50 an hour to answer questions regarding poetry, art in general (and philosophy and history if any wished). The room would hold three chairs: mine (with a small desk for writing or laptop) and two folding chairs. I would not want or expect more than two people at a time engaging me in discussion. After a time, perhaps setting up shop in my town would help anyone curious enough to enter, to ask questions to learn, for example, why poetry doesn’t rhyme so much anymore. Why and when did that stop happening? I see my plan as a contemporary poet’s version of Kafka’s hunger artist, starring me. My hypothetical plan would be also to bridge a gap between myself as a poet and the general community. It would indicate the distance between the culture and culture, and it may be that that I would record on the desk after someone leaves.
The concept that many people have of poets is something romantic, not in the sense of the Romantic era so much as in the twisted, popularized version of how that tradition has come down to people. Most don’t read poetry at all and have no idea what goes into writing it or living the life that writes it today. Booksellers will attest to that. Perhaps the image of a lazy person waiting for inspiration to move them to write something that rhymes and is soothing to the image-maker’s sense of the world. However, the poet knows that for a host of reasons a literate person will stay clear of poetry, even the rhyming kind. The misunderstanding works in the culture’s favor, so young people who would like to be poets are frustrated until one-by-one each gives up.
In fact, fewer and fewer people who graduate from college (or don’t) know what an artist, philosopher, or poet is and how one becomes a poet while many may be curious to know. The poet is so foreign to mainstream culture that anyone can call himself/herself a poet, and if s/he means business, publish a book of poems. It is for this reason that I write on my own experience, one that took place at the very beginning of the radical changes in the university. What makes a poet a poet and how one approaches creativity, and poetry specifically, are areas that I think I have come to understand in myself. One makes choices in life. One would think that if one decides to dedicate his/her life to becoming an engineer and focus on that field for twenty years, it would be nearly impossible for him/her to identify as a painter just as it would be crazy for a painter to choose to spend twenty years painting then decide to call himself/herself an engineer. However, the former happens more than the latter. Many people later in life turn to art for self-expression.
In part Slavoj Zizek has remarked, "What they offer us is precisely love without the fall, without falling in love, without this totally unpredictable dramatic encounter. And that’s what I find very sad. I think that today we are simply more and more afraid of this event or encounters. You encounter something which is totally contingent but the result of it if you accept it as an event is that your entire life changes. . . .
"A totally contingent encounter but the result can be that your whole life changes. Nothing is the same as they say. You even spontaneously perceive your entire past life as leading towards this unique moment, you know, the illusion of love is 'oh my God, I was waiting all my life for you.'”
Zizek criticizes dating websites and introduction agencies that match couples. He encourages people in the West to continue to “fall in love,” a method of coupling that began with the troubadours. He tells us that the “match up” method lacks contingency and the irrationality that embeds experience. He reminds us that by using computer matching sites and agencies aiding with compatibility tests we are reverting to the pre-modern arranged marriages.
He explains why falling in love is important for couples and suggests why it is so for Western culture. He explains that two people are attracted to each other because an imperfection or flaw in the ideal that each holds in his/her mind. (This cause of attraction is subconscious of course, but that flaw (and that later discovery) may be what the lover is itching to experience and learn from.) Zizek explains that when two people fall in love, it is a violent experience because each person’s world changes. Each orientation is altered so that each experiences the world differently, often an attempt by each to orient as one, melding two separate life experiences. Their entire lives change. He also explains that there is a violence when the ideal that each person in the couple embraces falls away to reveal the actual person that each is with the flaws. This is the violence of discovering the actual other. The two areas of violence in love interest him precisely because of the growing or learning that takes place for each partner often over a lifetime.
I believe there is another reason that Zizek is interested in the West continuing the tradition(?) of falling in love. He never actually says this though. I believe he sees that to lose the experience is to lose individual freedom and the West’s way of changing ideologies, how we via contingency move from one ideology to another. Without this ability in practice, revolution would be impossible, and even reform would seem hopeless. We in the West fall in love with an ideology that changes our orientation to the world often for generations. That ideology has its flaws (and that is what attracts us subconsciously) and sooner or later when the benefits of the ideology have been lived fully but the flaws have been experienced fully also, we release the beloved ideology. At that point we are ready to fall in love again. This where we are currently in the West: Ready for the contingency of falling in love with a new ideology to take hold.
Slavoj Zizek wrote the following thought about happiness.
“What makes us happy is not to get what we want. But to dream about it. Happiness is for opportunists. So I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. We all remember Gordon Gekko, the role played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street. What he says, breakfast is for wimps, or if you need a friend buy yourself a dog, I think we should say something similar about happiness. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves.” (The Guardian)
What is he referring to and what exactly is his thought? I believe he is referring to the West’s ideology, especially the idea of “pursuit of happiness.” He is suggesting that “opportunists” or big business and government take advantage of folks who chase dreams or follow their bliss or attempt to “be all you can be.” One might think that the creative person following his/her bliss is doing the right thing in a democracy where individuality is the big idea. Well, perhaps, but it is more complicated because many get distracted. Let us take someone wanting to be an artist as an example.
Today, this person takes private lessons as a young person, draws at home every chance he/she gets. This person decides to go to art school for college. First, parents, relatives, and friends advise against the move. “How are you going to survive? How will you make money?” These ideas bombard the person, and this is where (for so many) the compromise begins and the distraction leads them to a place they really didn’t want to go. The art school has recently changed its name from “Art College” to “Art and Design College.” The young dreamer goes to the college and learns a little art but mostly learns design, leaves college and gets a studio but needs a job. Tapping into the designer side of his skills, the young artist gets a job. With the job comes money to rent an apartment, buy a car, attract a mate, and the art work becomes a weekend get-away or even a Sunday afternoon hobby. This is where the art student kisses dreams of an “authentic master” goodbye and says hello to the “happy” “stupid” “slave,” according to Zizek. And I think he has a point.
What Zizek is suggesting is that the authentic master doesn’t get distracted but makes sacrifices for his/her art. The authentic master stays focused. His/Her life is one of a struggle to fail better as Beckett might say. Zizek suggests that this is true of even the big capitalists and so could be also perhaps of a designer who sets out to be the next Ralph Lauren. There is suffering to embrace and recognize as part of not being a “wimp.” Zizek is always teaching and here he is telling any who are listening how our ideology works to keep people down and distracted, happy, and doing what the elite rulers want: The psychology of ideology at work. (The elite rulers are not the authentic artists but the political and financial rulers that the authentic master ignores.) The deal for the easily distracted goes something like this. “You remain stupid and a slave, and we will keep you distracted (from uncomfortable thoughts), ‘happy’ as you like to say.” Voila Disneyland and professional sports.
Choreography: Two Leaps of Ironic Imagery
Compose a cluster of ironic or paradoxical images as each comes to mind. Do not attempt to connect them and avoid making each elaborate. Use concrete language as much as possible. When you have composed a cluster of about twelve ironic images, “step back” from them and look for a common theme or idea in them. You may find that six of them may lead in a direction that lends itself for writing more. Use one as a prompt and begin writing. Use the other five as needed, connecting what you find would be effective to the writing. Compose other new images if needed and if some of the images are metaphors, that is fine also. Keep unresolved irony as a guiding principle when brining a kind of unity of interrogation perhaps that remains open at its close.
Compose a cluster of ironic images as each comes to mind and do so around a topic, theme, or idea. Do not attempt to connect them and avoid making each elaborate. Use concrete language as much as possible. When you have composed a cluster of about twelve ironic images, “step back” from them and consider the common topic, theme, or idea. Use one as a prompt and begin composing in a direction that lends itself for writing more. Use the other five as needed, connecting what you find would be effective to the writing. Compose other new images if needed and if some of the images are metaphors, that is fine also. Keep unresolved irony as a guiding principle when brining a kind of unity around interrogation, commentary, or narrative that remains open at its close.
Each exercise will have its own logic, essay-like or narrative, but dancers will need to keep alert for the quick turns, half or quarter or almost pirouettes. Dancers need to follow their investigation not a predetermined conventional choreography. Dancers shouldn’t stare at their feet if possible. However, they should work against the music or use the music to bring in the less than intuitive expectation, not for its own sake but to further the game of feet that is being played. Play is the limber muscle: tip, tip, hooray.
I started reading Boston poets of the Sixties and branched out from there. I memorized and imitated as I thought apprentices should: Lowell, Eliot, Yeats, Auden, and Stevens. The New York poets and the West Coast poets came to my attention not long after. I remember studying John Ashbery’s Some Trees and The Tennis Court Oath in Barney’s bar under the Wursthaus in Harvard Square after scavenging the used book stores and Temple Bar Books for poetry and sociology, philosophy and history books. Reading to find out what the writers read, who the writers read a lot of in order to build context for their ideas was a strategy to assist me in overcoming whatever was lacking in my education. The indexes and works cited pages were as important to me as the body contents. The New York Review of Books was a staple and perhaps sometimes an education in itself. Drawing on a spirit of discipline, I rose early to write when I was too old to write at night for lack of energy. In essence, I married my muse as the cliché has it. To this day I respect mavericks and outliers and their unconventional ways of achievement. It may be that most poets must have similar experiences.
What kept me away from the “confessional school,” as it is called, in terms of my writing were first, my life was not Brahman nor was it noteworthy nor special in any way ethnically nor otherwise. My mother is French Canadian and my dad Irish and French. Though Robert Lowell’s poetry is poetry of a strong poet, unique, his was the last of the white men dominating the literary scene in America. His work is not unique because he is the last. It is so because he took poetry into his own direction that had in its wake admirers and followers. His line from his poem “Eye and Tooth” cautioned me against using my life for writing: “I am tired, everyone’s tired of my turmoil.” I read that with a kind of exaggeration for myself. “Who cares? There are so many lives with problems being born and dying; my life isn’t anything to write about.” I continue to believe that though here I am writing this essay.
They Try To Solve The Problem Of Poverty, For Instance, By Keeping The Poor Alive; Or, In The Case Of A Very Advanced School, By Amusing The Poor. – Oscar Wilde
We ignore objective violence and that may be why we deny climate change. People are always aware of subjective violence: a car accident, a crime of passion or envy. Objective violence is violence caused by the collective action (or inaction) of people. It is almost the background to our lives but is of interest to sociologist one might think. The violence caused by the natural world may be put in the category of divine violence, a violence regarding which people have little or no control. Volcanic eruptions, a meteor striking Earth remain divine violence. Scientists have been able to parse the difference between the two kinds of violence so that we know that objective violence is the cause of climate change and not divine violence. Of course, those most responsible for the violence are those who rule and those who rule are elite capitalists who maintain the system we have.
An example of objective violence is poverty. Whether a culture wishes to acknowledges the violence it perpetrates on poor people or not, poverty is violence. In a just world, a culture could be convicted to such violence. If one isn’t poor, one avoids thinking of the stress alone on a life with which poverty burdens one. Think of finding a job without the appropriate transportation, wardrobe; think about attending school hungry, with a home-life focused on survival (rent and meals) while one or two parents patch an income among several jobs if they are lucky. Think about the humiliation in every social encounter outside the poor community one lives in. Think about the crime and intimidation one is victim to almost daily. Think about the lack of nutrition in the available foods that one can afford in local stores. Think about the temptation to give up, to find “illegal” ways to survive.
The situation of the poor person is one of a victim to violence from an uncaring, unsharring society that is able to tap all phones, create apps, and fly drones for killing but can’t resist perpetrating violence in its midst, in its own society. The objective violence of poverty has a function however for those in power. The rest of the culture depends on the poor performing these below subsistence jobs and on these people simply being victims of the violence. Their function is one of warning to working and middle classes: “Don’t go there. Submit and do as is suggested without mistake or ill health and you may avoid these people, this fate.”