On The One Hand… And On The Other… And In Between

Posts tagged “New York Times

Does Less Boring Always Mean More Accessible To The General Audience?

David Orr‘s article in the New York Times portends some potent possibilities for poetry.

That is, the oral presentation or performance of a written work, which probably began its life in the imagination of the author as a sound or a string of random words heard aloud — probably a worthwhile enterprise…  There are good things in store when it comes to venues that feature these extroverted modes of expression.   And when David Orr’s shout-out in Gotham is then coupled with this blog-sphere post, entitled, “Is Poetry Poorly Appreciated As Previously Thought?”, we might surmise that we’ve made the long-awaited, proverbial turn.

We might learn the names of rock-star-poets and believe in a paradigm shift of epic proportions.

Not so fast.   Del Marbrook, in the post above, calls into question any popularity that pushes for more accessible works of art.   He argues, I think, convincingly that poets may have good reason to worry about “dogma” creeping into these literary launch points; and by dogma he cites certain Facebook diatribes on how some poetry is “crap” because it keeps the reader/listener in the dark and savors ambiguity.

Of course, the other way we may approach this stalemate is to broach the subject of why the poet wants to write in verse to begin with.   I mean, a good novel might spell a reprieve from living in the trailer park.  Ask J.K. Rowling.   Even a decent novel might get you a gig at the Community College, and from there, who knows if somebody with Hollywood contacts is listening and wants to talk  screen play.  The next thing you know, you’re parleying that prose into all kinds of deposable income, which helps to fuel an economic uptick…   So, why does the writer even waste his time with the contemplation of enjambment, line breaks and the whole iambic pentameter fixation?

My answer is that we do it for a variety of reasons, but that the most elegant among them is that we don’t want to impose a narrative arc where there is no narrative arc.   And we’d like to position ourselves at the cusp of first-hand experience and the self’s attempt to blurt out the as-yet unfinished meaning of each isolated and successive episode that life has to offer.   If that sounds like a mouthful, I meant it to be.

And I wholeheartedly affirm both/and.   Both David Orr and Del Marbrook… I can do this primary because accessibility is not inherently bad, or of the devil, any more than ambiguity or, heaven forbid, massive confusion are.

You–the reader of these very words–may assume this is all a matter of personality.  Different strokes and all… I prefer not to disagree with you, except to say, Do you actually know what you think and feel and why?   Are you tracing back to its lair the monster beneath your bed?

The problem is that we treat events and people as problem, which require solutions.  Fixing things has never been the poet’s modus operandi.  Paying attention has been and will always be.   Again, I have no problem with giant crowds, kicking back a few drinks and enjoying Billy Collins in Manhattan — but then I’d like that same audience to have the discipline or the wherewithal to go themselves into the dark closets.   Go there and prepare for that solitary wrestling match with angels or demons.

Willed In Autumn

Tracy K. Smith

The room is red, like ourselves
On the inside.  We enter
And my heart ticks out its tune
Of soon, soon.  I kneel

On the bed and wait.  The silence
Behind me is you, shallow breaths
That rustle nothing.  This will last.
I grip the sheets, telling time

To get lost.  I close my eyes
So the red is darkener now, deep,
A willed distance that backs away
The faster we approach.

I dream a little plot of land and six
Kid goats.  Every night it rains.
Every morning sun breaks through
And the earth is firm again under our feet.

I am writing this so it will stay true.
Go for a while into your life,
But meet me come dusk
At a bar where music sweeps out

From a jukebox choked with ragged bills.
We’ll wander back barefoot at night,
Carrying our shoes to save them
From the rain.  We’ll laugh

To remember all the things
That slaughtered us a lifetime ago,
And at the silly goats, greedy for anything
Soft enough to crack between their teeth.



Telemakhos, Wall Street Protests and The Waking of the English Major

There’s a way of reading the Wall Street Protests as something more than training for the NYPD.

There’s a way of looking beyond the lack of a parade permit and the pepper spray and the 80 arrests — and it’s the way of The Odyssey:

“… and there is now this greater evil still:
my home and all I have are being ruined.
Mother wanted no suitors, but like a pack
they came — sons of the best men here among them —
lads with no stomach for introduction
to Ikarios, her father across the sea;
he would require a wedding gift, and give her
to someone who found favor in her eyes.
No; these men spend their days around our house
killing our beeves and sheep and fatted goats,
carousing, soaking up our good dark wine,
not caring what they do.  They squander everything…”

So says Telemakhos, the son of Odysseus, in Book II of Homer’s epic narrative.   And the reason I bring this up now is that the squandering continues.   To this day, the corporate elite lives off the resources that we have stored for the vulnerable of this vast household, known as the United States of America.    And to this day, the conniving of Penelope’s suitors threatens to dismantle those structures that protect us from avarice and greed and gluttony.

An avid watcher of the news may take a dim view of the clashes with police, dismissing the peaceful marchers as freeloaders.   Not so!   Here’s a quote from Chris Hedges, former reporter with the New York Times and author of The Death of the Liberal Class:

 The real radicals have seized power and they are decimating all impediments to the creation of a neo-feudalistic corporate state, one in which there is a rapacious oligarchic class, a thin managerial elite, and two-thirds of this country live in conditions that increasingly push families to subsistence level… They want us to remain passive and to remain frightened. And as long as we remain passive and frightened, entranced with their electronic hallucinations, we are not a threat. … The moment people come out and do this [kind of protest], the corporate state is terrified — and if you doubt me, look around you at the huge numbers of cops, and not only that but the kind of brutality the cops have visited on peaceful protesters.

You see, the point is not that we should simply work hard, keep our noses to the grind stone and take whatever wages trickle down to us from on high.   Protestantism’s ethic also implies that we pay attention, and that we debunk the protocol by which our households are abused.   What is it that we want?   High-paying jobs by which we can subjugate others before they subjugate us?   Or meaningful and generous opportunities to serve and to be served?

The poetics of the past prove very  enlightening as we venture a response to these core questions.    Classic literature, we like to think, is classic because of the truth that it bequeaths from one generation to the next, from one culture to the next.   That is, we don’t memorize verbiage from The Iliad and The Odyssey for the sake of passing a pre-requisite at the Community College.   Rather, we engage its artistry at a subterranean level.   The so-called “primary world,” to which literary critics refer with occasional disdain, may  be read heroically from the perspective of the “secondary world” of the creative genius.    The masterful work of  J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, may speak with eloquence and insight at a table where the evil Sauron is the least of our problems.

Wake up, you English Majors!   You Interdisciplinary Humanities Scholars!   We may have a role for you after all.


–By Warren Slesinger

Liftboat (lyfe.boht) n-s 1. A small boat
for saving lives at sea with a centerboard,
two or more sets of oars, and a rudder;
it’s capacity depends on the ratio of men
to women and children, and its safety on
the height of the waves and the strength
of the wind:  a dazzling white lifeboat with
“America the Beautiful” stenciled on the side.
2. A means of escape in a crisis.  See lifeboat
ethics.  3.  The situation of someone fortunate
enough to find a seat in a lifeboat surrounded
by splashing, sputtering people too numerous
to be take on board, the occupants cursing
and clubbing the knuckles that clutch the side.
See Third World.


In the wondrous tale that Homer tells, Telemakhos goes in search of revelation.   He leaves the confines of his home, which is being plundered, and seeks word of his father’s life.   Telemakhos travels by ship, over treacherous seas.   He’s sort of like the biblical character, Jonah, in that respect.  Or even the Apostle Paul, getting shipwrecked on Malta…  and on his way to trial in Rome.

And so, here’s our metaphor.   Not just a lifeboat.   But ultimately a lifeboat that takes us to shore, where there is news, good news!


Social Conditioning Tracks Truth… And Poets Get To Direct Traffic!

Let’s begin with this quote from the Opinionator column of the New York Times (September 14, 2011, 8 pm).  Gary Gutting writes in review of Philip Kitcher and “The Joy of Secularism”:

Your religious beliefs typically depend on the community in which you were raised or live. The spiritual experiences of people in ancient Greece, medieval Japan or 21st-century Saudi Arabia do not lead to belief in Christianity. It seems, therefore, that religious belief very likely tracks not truth but social conditioning.

Very nice…   But what if we turned things around and said:  social conditioning actually “tracks” truth and therefore the dialogue between religious communities as well as secular humanists is precisely the direction we need to go!

Now, if that conversation is likely (and I’m not saying it is at this point), we’ll need someone to arbitrate.  That is, we’ll need a facilitator who is familiar with the plausibility structures of each group.   This person or persons will have to be fair in terms of an abiding appreciation for the nuances of culture and cultural expression.    What do the atheists fear most about the public agenda of the theists?   How may an institution of faith lose the codified language it holds dear in the all-out effort at communicating to non-believers in the same geographic vicinity?   Can all parties agree that interpretations arise out of a mutual commitment to live and die within the rubric of specific associations — and that to deny any association whatsoever is itself to pledge allegiance to the sect of the autonomous individual?

Well… if it’s an arbiter we need, there happens to be a ready-made resource of people who straddle the fence between rationalism and romanticism, between relative moralism and mysticism without all the bells and whistles.  I’m referring, of course, to the world’s poets (past, present and future), and I’m suggesting that, with a little training, we might speak into the so-called new atheism debates and live to write about it afterwards.   Here’s a blurb from Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age“:

Through language in its constitutive use (let’s call it Poetry), we open up contact with something higher or deeper (be it God, or the depths of human nature, desire, the Will to Power, or whatever) through language.  Poetry can be seen as an event with performative force, words which open up contact, make something manifest for the first time.  But what is this event?

Aye, there’s the rub.  Taylor ventures on to describe here (on p. 758)  “something language-transcendent,” and yet “inescapably subjective.”
And so, for those of you, playing along at home, don’t!   Don’t play at home!

Play outside in the rain!

Play with the “human meanings” (that may go flat at home) in those very intersections where there will be the most traffic… Play where the signs are the most confusing…  and where the cultural signifiers are eager to avoid deadly collisions…

If This World Falls Apart

–By Lou Lipsitz

I never troubled to grasp the basic principles
of how my voice zings through the phone lines
and into your ear; and so, the phones out,
I could not even begin to get a handle on how
to recreate the way I could call to ask you
if this world had truly fallen apart, or
if this was another serious but passing crisis.

And the roads blocked by shattered trees,
I would have to walk over and ask you
and see what you thought.
That would take most of the day.
So I’d have to stay the night
and have supper at your house,
though I’m not sure how we would cook
without any power or light.
Fire, most likely, or eat cold out of the garden.

Millennia of human struggle and invention
would be lost if it depended on us —
two clueless poets collecting sticks
along a dark road;
men of lifelong impracticality,
depending on others to do
the functional things that repair our intricate

Although, on the other hand, there would be the dance
you would certainly do at sunset to lift our spirits.
And to accompany you, I would find
a hollow reed and put my fingers
over the holes I’d burned through it
and begin to blow.


I’m not exactly sure what either Gutting or Kitcher would make of that poem.  Or any poem.  What’s clear, however, is they require a bridge — something other than ontological arguments and something other than doctrinal hocus-pocus.  Gutting would probably hold out for the divine’s role in constructing a common morality.  Kitcher, by contrast, may have hope for piecing together an institution without supernatural aid or input.  A poet, like Lipsitz, doesn’t seem to care one way or the other.   His social conditioning is tracking something that’s beyond a moral construct (although it may inform it).