Poetics

Some Sort of Manifesto

This was emailed to me with the subject "for wetasphalt." The return address was info at wetasphalt.com and the whole thing was in plain ascii text with no signature or any other identifying marks I could discern. Additionally, when I tracked back the IP addresses it seemed to have been sent from a remailer running on a BSD machine somewhere in Indiana connected to the internet via an inflight wi-fi service used by a number of commercial airlines. That is where the trail ends. I don't know quite what to make of it, but I found the whole thing pretty interesting so I figured what the fuck, I'll publish it. I have corrected some punctuation here and there, and fixed numerous spelling errors (so many that a big part of me suspects that Eric is the one that sent it to me, although the obsessive interest in aesthetic moments would seem to indicate this is the product of EL Borgnine, although I'm pretty sure it's not him. If it is, well, it's nuttier than it seems). It is otherwise unaltered from the text as it was sent to me:


The Quiet American Grows Quieter.

Consider that the avant garde is over. Whether you believe this or not is immaterial. Hold it in your mind like a crystal of hypothetical possibility that may or may not explain the prismatic severing of the world you live in. Consider that it is over.

If it is over, then it is in fact not a sociological or cultural occurrence. It is rather a historical occurrence.

If it is historical, it is fixed in spacetime at some point and with some people in some shared past that we are remembering and talking about but not ourselves experiencing. All of this follows from the nature of history.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

So gin tastes like pine needles. I've always thought this and wondered what the appeal was. I like my liquor to taste like liquor, not some weird watery piney furniture cleanser.

Still, my dad always has loved his Beefeaters, and I suppose that there are other folks who like gin just fine. It's not my cup of tea, but there are more pressing concerns than wondering about taste.

All of this to say that I think I've had Tanqueray two or three times in my life. And yet for some reason the internet has chosen to assault me with ads for Tanqueray gin two or three times an hour.

And what's been striking me as strange about this ad, and the other liquor ads I've been seeing lately, is that they seem to be bent not on selling a liquor but on selling a lifestyle. The lifestyle on display appears to be thirty to forty something gen exers still partying like they did in 1994 but now with more of the money and accoutrements of the upper middle class that they didn't have back then. It's an inherently shallow vision: guys in tailored sport coats and dress shirts without ties with four day growths of beard, girls in low backed dresses and pumps. Lots of wet asphalt and coarse voiced narrators talking about what people on screen are doing as if it's the coolest thing in the world. These are people who in the words of the Tanqueray narrator can "go to paris repeatedly and never see the eiffel tower, the mona lisa, or the arc de triumphe."

It bothers me because I am clearly the target market of this crap, and yes I recognize myself in the caricatures of people living the good life presented in these commercials as something that in broad contours resembles what I want out of my life. They want to sell me a more glamorous version of the lifestyle I already have. And I don't like it.

Why "Racism = Prejudice + Power" Is The Wrong Way to Approach the Problems of Racism

Critical Race Theory is a popular pass-time among my comrades on the radical left who ascribe to various positions within the broad political ideology of identity politics. Since I'm a Marxist, or at least a Marxian, it's largely been something I've ignored. This is because for the most part it has appeared, looking in from outside the social circles where this particular family of ideas have currency, to be little more than a self-serving rhetorical tactic of petit-bourgeois academics seeking, out of narcissism, to claim for themselves and certain of their peers some of the political capital owed to the working class and won by them through hard graft during the civil rights movements of the fifties and sixties. The basic tactic as I see it is that Theorist A looks on the problems of some segment of the proletariat to whom he is peripherally related via an essentialized category established by historical capitalist precedent and Theorist A claims that rather than the disadvantages owing to oppressive economic structures, the actual oppressive structure is something else which is specifically in place to target whatever group Theorist A can make a case for his or her own membership of. This move is then co-opted by non-members of the cohort as a further disenfranchisement of the proper class consciousness, and all turned on its head as a condescending way to tell working class folks that they're really the oppressors in society, rather than the victims of the Capital that has been so kind to the afforementioned theorists in their cozy endowed fellowships and well funded "activist" groups, funded primarily by the tax breaks given to capital so that it can spend more of itself extracting surplus labor from the workforce. No One Is Innocent. But I digress.

The Open Sentence: A Statement Masquerading as a Manifesto

I say this now because as I'm continuing to write my extended, in depth criticism of Atlas Shrugged, there are going to be times when the close reading will require the engagement of aesthetic rather than political or philosophical concerns. As I'm trying to show that it is the worst book ever written, it is necessary to take on not only the bad ideas in the book and the quality of the storytelling, but also the quality of the craftsmanship at the level of the language. In order that people know where I'm coming from, I figured it would be better to lay it all out here in a brief abstract rather than have to constantly re-state things about what I think makes for good and bad writing within each individual piece.

In writing, where the content is not primarily concerned with the communications of facts or criticism of some form whether it be literal or cultural—that is to say, where it is not political/philosophical treatise, some sort of non-fiction, or the interpretation of other work—I take to be primitive several statements by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Among them:

"Philosophy ought to be written only as a form of poetry."

"What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

"What can be shewn cannot be said."

"There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical."

"We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense conditions are ideal, but also, because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk, therefore we need friction. Back to the rough ground."

"If a lion could speak, we could not understand him."

"In a large number of cases, though not for all, the meaning of a word is it's use in a language-game."

The World's Shortest Critical Manifesto

A very short manifesto laying out a plan for literary criticism in the future.

Silliman and the School of Quietude

If Jorie Graham isn't the Headmistress of The School of Quietude, then I don't know that such a school exists as Mr. Silliman constructs it.

Kenneth Goldsmith and the Cult of Pretense & Boredom

The twentieth century began with a question about what art is. Artists like Duchamp, Tzara, Artaud, Beckett and Breton challenged conventional notions and forced audiences to examine a lot of pre-conceived notions about beauty and the value of the aesthetic. That's done now. It's time to move on. That now, in the early 21st century, people like Kenneth Goldsmith have come to the point where they have completely inverted prior valuations, to the point where boredom is what is aspired to, well, I find the tautological truth that what they're doing is completely uninteresting rather revealing.

Im Riddim and the Reading of Poetry Silently

I've never studied verse formally. I've read a few books and a lot of essays, but never in any sort of systematic way. For a long time I've struggled with the various ideas about rhythm in English language poetry as much of what a lot of poets say about rhythm doesn't really make a lot of sense. Ultimately, I've been left with the definite suspicion that much of what poets believe about rhythm is largely unconnected to what they practice when they're writing. Most important, there is a flaw in the concept of poetic rhythm being regular in the same way that music is regular. Existing systems of scansion that attempt to regularize poetry rhythm are therefore flawed at root and make for a dull and difficult tool for the analysis of poetry. Far more systematic and interesting is, I think, the study of prosody from a linguistic point of view and there is a great deal of very good literature available on phonology and phonetics which is illuminating when applied to poetry...

The Form Question

There are various conservatives on the poetry scene at present who often bemoan the loss of "Form" in poetry and decry the current tendency toward open form composition; Mary Oliver and Dana Gioia are among the more prominent lights of this misguided notion, associated as they are with the New Formalist movement in the eighties. What's particularly difficult to process is where this idea came from that "free verse" was in some way divorced from the care and craft required by formal prosody. Never mind the fact that current trends in public education expose most americans only to Shel Silverstein in their early years, followed closely to a broad survery covering roughly the two hundred fifty or so years between Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. Never mind the fact that American poetry more or less begins right around the era of Dickinson or that the Elizabethan dialect grows more and more unfamiliar to speakers of American English with each passing year, and what we have is a situation in which the speakers of a national language, that is, American English, are by and large unfamiliar with their national poetry.

What does this mean to the formal argument? Well, for one thing, American poetry since it's maturity has largely been a bastion of free verse. After all, free verse poetry—despite early and important examples from the King James Bible—found its first true paramour in Whitman's cadenced line. Excepting Poe, all of the important poets of North America have worked largely with free verse of one method or another.

On this fact I am grounding my axiom that American Verse is Free Verse. For an American poet, strict adherence to a form is an aberration of the national poetry. This is not necessarily the case for other nations and languages. Particularly for speakers of the various Spanish and French dialects who have a number of distinct linguistic features available to them that lend themselves to formalism—including large numbers of regular verbs, syllable timed rhythm, and generally more morphologically homogenous lexicons—not to mention many more form options than the pittance available to an American English poetry.

So where does this criticism of the lack of form come from? There are several factors. One is the previously mentioned problem with poetry education. Free verse, also called open form by its defenders—although I think that open verse is much more descriptive and will use it exclusively in the rest of this essay—is defined by this woefully inadequate education in poetry as "that poetry that doesn't rhyme." Formal verse is defined by contrast as "poetry that does rhyme" and given its end of the historical spectrum in that afforementioned high school poetry survey, often gets the short shrift; perceived as archaic and "out of style" by those who aren't really paying attention, it has, to the poorly educated reader, been reduced to mere doggerel, the kind of inspirational poetry found in Reader's Digest magazine or spewed by the so-called "Cowboy Poets." As such its appeal is largely conservative, geared as it is toward those uneducated proles not even sophisticated enough to form the mistaken impression that formal poetry is passé.

Not helping matters is the fact that many poetry magazines, editted by similar idiots who've been through the same inadequate educational system, often put in their submission guidelines "no formal poetry." By which of course they mean "no doggerel made up of rhymed couplets in roughly iambic septameter," with which such magazines are no doubt deluged. (Of course, they wouldn't be if they just pulled their listings from the Writer's Market like we suggest.) So, for young people just learning to write poetry and looking to these major magazines for guidance, they might be understandably put off should they like such devices as end-rhyme and a fixed number of feet per line. From this point of view, the New Formalist response almost makes some sense.

Except of course that formal verse never went away, and if one looks carefully, one will find that American poetry is filled with sonnets, odes, and various other fixed forms at every turn. Granted, most of it is terrible, but there are certain standouts, such as Ted Berrigan's The Sonnets or the more recent Jim and Dave Defeat The Masked Man. Formal verse isn't going anywhere, so the dim lights attempting to rescue it by writing it badly aren't really accomplishing what they think they are. Of course, those who don't bother to understand what they're doing before they set off to do it seldom do.