Monday, March 30, 2009

Philosophy and Poetry

This blog is really about the likeness of philosophy to poetry. And unlikeness (even dislikeness). I just thought of an important difference.

Philosophy tends toward genaralities, using specific as mere examples. Poetry tends toward specifics, using generalities mainly as a kind of scaffolding.

Philosophy asks, "What is real?" Poetry asks, "Is this ideal?" That probably goes a long way toward explaining why there are so many indivdiual poems and very little in the way of identifiable philosophical "exercises" to match them.

Descartes's piece of wax. Heidegger's hammer. Moore's hands.

(Actually, I take all this back. It's something I'm thinking about, but I'm already uneasy about it. Something wrong here.)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Andrew Hill

On February 25, 2009, one day before my thirty-eighth birthday, Jonathan Mayhew "began to listen seriously to the music of Andrew Hill." I like to think I played a small part in having that happen.

I don't have Jonathan's precision as a listener, but listening to Passing Ships right now, "Plantation Rag" and "Noon Tide", I, well, you know, dig. Jonathan talks about the "the border region between hard bop and avant-garde", and that's probably, again, something like what I mean by jazz.

I also like Hill's "Siete Ocho" (from Judgment!) and "Subterfuge" (Black Fire) and Bobby Hutcherson's "Verse" (Stick-up!). Tonight, I'm moving through my record collection like I sometimes move through my (very modest) collection of contemporary poetry. Looking for things that seem alike in the way they make me feel.

For my birthday I got the Charles Mingus Atlantic recordings box set. It's also going to be heard.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

My Poetics

It is the task of the poem to detach an experience from its politics. To extricate it from history. By this means, the poet locates the emotion.

The poet, for example, meets a beautiful woman. A woman's beauty is intensely political. The poet undertakes to compose a poem "to her beauty". His task here may be to free [his experience of] her lips from the policy that governs [his experience of] her face.

Update: as I noticed during the discussion below. This post is actually an abstract of this one.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Belated Answer to Dido

But let's suppose you went ahead and bought in
And you gave up on that life out of doors.
Will you deserve everything that you get
When you learn the house was never really yours?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Memo from Mencken to Hitchens

"The fraud of democracy is more amusing than any other—more amusing even, and by miles, than the fraud of religion." (1926)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Goffman (and Greenstreet) on Institutions

I had occasion to dip into Erving Goffman's Asylums today. Here's the first sentence of the first essay.

Social establishments—institutions in the everyday sense of that term—are places such as rooms, suites of rooms, buildings or plants in which activity of a particular kind regularly goes on. (15)

I will be using this in my work on "composure" as a counterpoint to Kantian intuitions.

In whatever manner and by whatever means a mode of knowledge may relate to objects, intuition is that through which it is in immediate relation to them, and to which all thought as a means is directed. (KRV A19/B33).

Intuitions and institutions together are the media of immediacy.

What I like about Goffman's definition of institutions ("in the everday sense") is its concreteness. It's tangibility. We can heighten it by imagining what Kate Greenstreet would do with it:

I think of places
(rooms, suites of rooms, buildings
or plants)
where things regularly go on

Wittgenstein suggested that our belief in the "intangibility" of mental states stems from our "refus[al] to count what is tangible about our state as part of the specific state which we are postulating" (PI§608). In this spirit, I think it is important to approach our institutions through the rooms and suites of rooms in which things happen. Marriage is an institution and the home (the house or houses) is its place. Money is an institution and the bank its tangible place. There are places that put us "in immediate relation" to our activities.

Flarf Reading #12c

Tost, Tony. 2003. "I Am Not the Pilot". Cortland Review 22.

Mesmer's subject is unable to subscribe and certainly no lawyer. Tost's subject is not a pilot and unable to "analyze complicated data". It's simple:

I am not a pilot, and I cannot assert anything with 100 percent certainty.

Nor could you if you weren't a pilot. If you are not:

Repeat after me, 'I am not the pilot,
I will not attempt to fly the ship.'

There is a clear theme of amateur passion. We can make certain demands of "seasoned professionals" but, if we are not pilots, and we most assuredly are not pilots, then we may wonder about both whether "the data is correct" and "how realistic the sky is". That's for pilots to say.

Pilots are wonderful and much like us, but we are not pilots.

[We] have not taken the test
that allows [us] to take over the controls as of yet.

This poem, it seems to me, gestures at what Wyndham Lewis called "the art of being ruled". In recent years we have been faced with a particular problem of control (a beatiful, difficult, thing, Drew Gardner reminded us). We are apparently unable to subscribe, as Mesmer put it. We are not pilots, we are "not part of their operation", and we don't claim to "understand that whole 'brotherhood'". I don't know if things have changed now that we also "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals", as Obama so eloquently put it.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Flarf Reading #12b

Tost, Tony. 2003. "I Am Not the Pilot". Cortland Review 22.

Probably most of what I see in Flarf I saw in this poem first. Most of what I see in contemporary American poetry today, I guess, I first saw in this poem when I read it six years ago. At least in glimts and flashes. But I did not understand what I was seeing. I did not know what it meant.

So let's begin this reading with what I think "I Am Not the Pilot" means. The pilot is Palinurus, Aeneas's helmsman, or gubernator, a word that shares its root with "cybernetics", namely, the Greek for the verb "to steer". Palinurus is also the pseudonym (the false name) of Cyril Connolly, the author—not so much: the compiler—of The Unquiet Grave, which, of course, is also the title Tony Tost gave to his blog.

So the voice of "I Am Not the Pilot" is, implicitly, not the voice modern Connolly and not the voice of ancient Palinurus. And who were they? (Who is he?) "He is the core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within" (TUG, p. xiii). Palinurus is, let us say, unable to work under these conditions:

We cannot think if we have no time to read, nor feel if we are emotionally exhausted, nor out of cheap material create what is permanent. We cannot coordinate what is not there. (TUG, p. 2)

And, of course, we have no time to read; we are emotionally exhausted; the material is cheap. Palinurus is the name of our resentment of what we have been given to coordinate.

The English language is like a broad river on whose bank a few patient anglers are sitting, while, higher up, the stream is being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck. (93)

It is this resentment of what we have been given—paultry as what we have been given may be—that the voice of "I Am Not the Pilot" renounces. In fact, he simply leaves it on the side. Connolly was aware of this possibility as a possibility of any poem. Indeed, he too renounced the (otherwise undeniable) morbidity of The Unquiet Grave.

All grief, once made known to the mind, can be cured by the mind, the manuscript proclaimed; the human brain, once it is fully functioning, as in the making of a poem, is outside time and place and immune from sorrow. (xvi)

Well, Connolly's manuscript is less convincing in its proclamation than Tost's. Where The Unquiet Grave was stitched together of the "finest" material in the literary tradition, "I Am Not the Pilot" makes do with, with all due respect to his sources, "the muck". Coming to this poem as a reader, one finds an experience that is, unremarkably, and with no profundity, beyond time and space. One finds something (something in one's own miserable self) that is, finally, immune from sorrow.

Coming to it as a critic, one says simply (to steal Ben Lerner's line), "It was open, so I walked right in." That's what we will do in the next post.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Flarf Reading #12

Tost, Tony. 2003. "I Am Not the Pilot". Cortland Review 22.

The argument for this poem being a work of Flarf depends on its likeness to, say, Gary Sullivan's "Poem" and Sharon Mesmer's "I Am Apparently Unable to Subscribe". All three poems are obviously Google-sculpted and all three offer shifts between frivilous and sentimental moments. There is nothing "profound" in any one line of these poems. And this lack of "surface depth", if you will, is to my mind the greatest achievement of Flarf.

I have decided to read this poem more closely than planned. So I'll leave it here for now.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Flarf Reading #11

Mesmer, Sharon. 2007. "I Am Apparently Unable to Subscribe". Annoying Diabetic Bitch. Combo Books.

I think a case can made that the "badness" or "wrongness" of Flarf is a challenge to poetic expertise. More importantly, it challenges the idea that there is such as thing as emotional expertise. It gives feeling back to the amateur and that, I think, is the "humanity" that underlies a good piece of Flarf. It is part of its tone—a certain kind of lightness.

Take my word for it, I am not a lawyer.

I will return to this "I am not an authority on the subject" theme in my next post. The point can be generalized however: the speaking subject in this poem is definitely NOT a poet. That makes lyricism difficult, but also more effective when it comes about.

if I were able to subscribe I'd be your first born child,
so sleepy am I, so husband-free,
and old and apparently unable to find the opening of the sleeping bag.

The inability to subscribe (to mainstream, orthodox emotions?) is presented in a variety of ways and compared to not being able to drive, not being able to understand douching and (I like this one) secretly being Canadian. But a "straight" answer is attempted at the end, which is as poignant as keeping the milk in the cow:

Why the fuck am I apparently unable to subscribe?
Oh, that's right—I forgot to "invite myself."

One last piece of Flarf later today. Then on to other things.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Flarf Reading #10

Mohammad, K. Silem. 2003. "Puritan". Deer Head Nation. Tougher Disguises Press. Page 63.

I'm feeling a bit fatigued, Flarfed out. All this discipline. But I have always had an exit strategy. Tomorrow I'm going to read Sharon Mesmer's "I Am Apparently Unable to Subscribe" and on Saturday I will read Tony Tost's (for me seminal) "I Am Not the Pilot". Then I'm going to leave this alone for awhile. I feel a strong urge to read Tony now, and Ben Lerner, and Kate Greenstreet, and Lisa Robertson. So I'm going to do that next week.

Anyway, this poem starts with an albino giraffe. "Under the prying eyes of [a bunch of objects, a suggestion, a person,] I am a sex machine!" Then ("read on") a stanza about pants assigned to people who happen to have the same first names as poets associated with Flarf (Drew, Katie, Gary, Jordan) that closes with a call to find Michael Jordan's pants. Silliness, really. Just loosening us up. "Mind freshening," Ginsberg might say.

until you open your eyes—
until you learn to criticize—

The mood changes now. There's a lot of invective that is NOT intended to "romanticize/the October Revolution".

It is important to pause here and consider the situation, the mood. Since the poem is obviously fucking with us, at least in part, we can't make too much of objects and themes themselves. But we may, as readers, be in some sort of "state" at this point. Perhaps a bit like that scene in Goodfellas when Joe Pesci says, "Funny how?" Everything will depend on how the mood is resolved. And it is resolved thus:

many pledge allegiance to the "blood god"
I pledge allegiance to the freaky horse
who watches over me as I sleep

As Burroughs said: Wouldn't you?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Flarf Reading #9

Sullivan, Gary. 2001. "War Junkie". How to Proceed in the Arts. Faux Press. Page 48-49.

"Desert Storm footage cut & pasted in breakup story w/a thump." Once again, a poem that asks how do we love each other in this crazy mixed up world we live in?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Flarf Reading #8

Mesmer, Sharon. 2007. "The Nuclear Threat of Richard Chamberlain's Ass Stork". Annoying Diabetic Bitch. Page 94.

I don't remember exactly when it dawned on me how offensive the Cold War was and that the sort of "seriousness" that I had attributed to Shōgun as a twelve year-old was part of it. The War on Terror is of course just as offensive; it is a "Bloviating Ass Stork of Mythical Scope". My question when reading this poem is whether it offers a (satirical) critique of the current threat construct or a (lyrical) poem written under the terms of that threat. I always prefer the lyrical reading over the satirical one and, though I will grant it's a stretch, here's my thinking.

"I have never been able to forget," said an elderly Canadian who had been part of the nuclear disarmanent movement to George Woodcock, "the tragic love of those two young people!" They were talking about Orwell's 1984. Mesmer's poem, I submit, is not really about "the nuclear threat of Richard Chamberlain's ass stork" and a fortiori not about the wrongness of the Iraq War ("Fat ass Saddam is lucky if he has an outboard"). It is about "the object of the bewitched Tatiana's desire." It is about "touchy dong resin". To be sure, it IS "asshat week all over again" (Cold War = 1984 = Age of Terror). But that doesn't mean it's not still all about love.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Flarf Reading #7

Sullivan, Gary. 2006. "Poem". Self-published at Elsewhere, July 9, 2006.

This poem is a good demonstration of the combined effect of Google-sculpting and the Flarf aesthetic. As a critic, Gary Sullivan's work always makes me uneasy because it is always entirely possible that he's having me on in some important way. I feel as though I'm damned if I call it a poem, and damned if I don't. I judged "not poem" in the case of "Tarzan Workshop"; I'm going to judge "poem" in the case of "Poem".

It is stitched together out of a few jokes that can be found in various places on the Internet, a quiz meme and a few other odds and ends. None of it appears to be "written" by Sullivan in the ordinary sense. The poet's contribution is confined to cutting and pasting. One of the jokes has been attributed to Andy Rooney and Sullivan tells it pretty much entire. In one performance (available on YouTube) the audience seems to find it straightforwardly funny. One wonders if they find it "flarfy" too. Properly speaking, of course, it isn't. It's just an ordinary joke.

By stringing the rest of the jokes together in overlapping fragments, each derailing the others' progress, and throwing in some products and prices (not sure from where yet), we get a sort 1980s surrealism effect. Everything changes, however, with the introduction of the list of "dated" objects, which was taken from the meme. The quiz is an exercise in nostalgia. And it has precisely that effect here.

The result is that when we get to the last lines, which a Google search identifies as a verbatim transcription of a what is normally offered as a "groaner", the one-liner actually becomes poignant. Gary captures it masterfully in his performance. "Keep it in the cow," he whispers (after a "pause" that he might very well have written in himself).