Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Thousand Natural Shocks That Flesh Is Heir To

They tried to crush
The artist within.
They did their best.
You’d bring them
Ecstasy and enlightenment,
But they took you
to be
An unlikely candidate.

Does one worry about a tree?
One worries the stretched
Limbs will fall
that reach so carefully?
That the ground will be sold
From under him,
and he’ll have no place to go,
No place to hang his hat,
The tree, when old age comes,

The poet is one,
Like Donne,
Who sees clearly,
And writes something simply,
From looking at a matter straight.
He understands the point
Of ecstasy,
Of the fly that ‘sucked.’
Brave fly, good fly.
Good for the fly,
And for fucking
and ecstasy.
Natural enlightenment
At a very good price.

So they beat you in the place
Where you were prone toward
Ecstasy, tell you that
You did it wrong,
Treated you like were
a weird bastard, nothing more,
Slapped your pen away
And made you work at things
other than your work,
Put you on the defensive,
Which you didn't have time for,
And which made you sad.
Made you have to crawl back,
Drunkenly at the end of the night.
Just to have your bit of day.

And having to wonder why,
And what, anyway,
Was the point
of what they had to say.
You rebuilt your mansion
of many rooms therein,
to dwell.

"Fuck you, too."
The be-dumbed
Look of baffled
Of one who doesn’t get it,
I shall keep.

Sirens came.
Lights flashed blue
against a wall
in the night.
Like when cops go by,
except they stopped and stayed.
I'd become
a Transcendentalist poet,
and they were taking me

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Discovery Channel, History Channel, 2012, Mayan Calendar. Nostradamus.
Dostoyevsky hated electric lights.
The Earth’s magnetic force, weak, and the solar wind stronger than ever.
The polarity about to flip.
Big rocks coming our way, in 2029.

And people learning to be decent to each other.
Learning the one reality.
Lance Armstrong, riding, not to win, but just to be part of the boys. Loves the sport. Makes it look good, honors it. The history. Rode the Giro this year. First time ever. Does that tell you something? He looks good. Strong.
Everything, just like, buying something not so much for itself, but to support someone else, anonymously, the whole economy, or someone in some factory somewhere. Just like the reason you play music, to be a patron of someone who sings a thoughtful song. You went and spent six hundred dollars at an outlet mall, yeah, to look good, but to do good too. You could wear Levis and a white tee shirt, but… The main thing anyway is being in shape, and clothes look better so.
And in this time, people came to know the essence of things. Like why you drink wine. Or why you serve it. That business of that sort really is just a matter of good hearted pouring, wanting to share, a taste before we all are whacked by 2012, or 2029, not that I really believe we will, because I have hope. And there are too many great musicians, who, even if not in style, play some great music, like Townes Van Zandt. The magic of a Pic St. Loup and a good stereo system, as restaurants might have.
I fear the Tigers of Detroit, Hemingway’s fisherman says to the little boy. That's how to remember the race, and remember what matters. The generosity of talk, the good heartedness as glue that held the whole thing together.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Catch-22

The writer’s Catch-22. His job is to seek enlightenment toward the true nature of reality, the meaning behind daily events. This is his profession. For this, he is in need of respecting his time and efforts at this work as a profession. He needs some form of payment, that however he goes about his work he is gaining something in terms of money and respect and security. When his work is treated as a profession, he is able to continue to do it, to find the help he needs to complete at least some of his tasks.

Enlightenment is difficult without having some basic things at hand. A man needs a wife, as a relationship, viewed properly, is the engine for achieving his task. If however, he is not rewarded for his work to begin with, then he will be without all the things that provide for the security necessary to enjoy the privileges of a marital relationship. Without success, the success made possible by her very support and presence, he will not be viewed as able to have such a relationship.

And so, a society based on materialism and the kind of financial security only obtained through secondary jobs gives rise to those who cleverly fake enlightenment. The actor who can skillfully act out what enlightenment might look like will reap far more reward than the writer who tinkers away and makes real gains toward broader understandings and higher consciousness. A financier will concoct clever schemes to appear to have solved the basic mystery of how to make money and get rich so that he will gain the mantle of success that allow him to earn more successes, the very appearance and mirages being an integral part of his scheme. And so we have the phenomenon of Mr. Madoff. In a certain sense, he claimed an insight into some form of enlightenment that allowed him to provide for a beautiful wife. (And she helped him at whatever he was engaged in, with her support.) However, his basic modus operandi was dishonest, a complete fake, even as the illusions of his success as financial guru grew and grew. He claimed the cart before the horse, the ways and trappings of wealth without any means to really earn it.

A writer, an honest one, stands in contrast (or does he?) to such a model as Mr. Madoff and those in financial services who perpetuated another kind of false sense of security in the form of sub-prime mortgages which brought security to those who thought they could own a home and also those who invested their fond wishes and hard work and wages in those sketchy loans in the form of mortgages and housing booms.

So particularly today, the writer’s job is a serious one, to uncover things which are true in that those things have value, value toward gaining a proper understanding of the true nature of human reality.

The worst facet of following the voices preaching quick and solid returns--and perhaps poor beautiful Mrs. Madoff finds herself in a symptomatic spot--is that the nation has leaned toward a lack of curiosity, a willful ignorance toward the deep matters of life, become more purely commercial, fostered a dimming of intellect, a fascination with glittery surfaces of non-substantial things too quick and too easy with little behind them. Whereas there are some real things known to human beings, like fellowship, sympathetic compassion, a sense of daily struggle, a looking for some meaning to it all.

The writer, turning quietly inward, is alone, with little to help him but the knowledge that he is at the very center of the most important matters, even as news cameras point nervously away to symptom after symptom, one bad thing after another, without gracing upon the simple honestly of a good question.

Hemingway’s early stories are permeated with a sense of humor over the basic situation, maintaining their edge against simple unquestioning bitterness over the writer finding himself alone in Modern America.

Friday, June 12, 2009

My Education

When I came to college everything fell into place my first semester. I found myself in English 11, the intro course, with a great teacher whose name on this earth was Benjamin Demott. We brought moments of stories and poems to life, in order to see what they meant, or what the people who were going through such moments were experiencing, given the language we, the reader, were being presented with. We read Updike, we read a John Clare poem, we read DeLillo, we read Eben Flood by Edward Arlington Robinson. We read Frost, we read Emerson, we read I heard a fly buzz when I died. We read When I have fears that I might cease to be, after The Grecian Urn Ode. We were given tools to read anything, and eventually, we caught on, meaning that our language caught up with what we were thinking, that what we wrote in papers began to coincide with our experience as readers, so that we saw, thought, and ended up writing something along to what was hidden in us all of the time: our understanding, as if remembered from previous experiences, learnings and dreams and other things we respected.

There were many nights when I’d stay up ‘til very late at night and early in the morning to get an understanding right, and then to write a paper. It was hard work, but I was dedicated, and I enjoyed drinking in every moment of class, from when the old guy would go around the room, learning our names, calling us by Mr. and Miss, followed by our last names. We had fun. We joked. And the pace kept up, despite the apparent lazy or lackadaisical approach Demott took in that old classroom with windows that no longer exists toward the portico of Johnson Chapel on the second floor. We were learning before we knew it. And we learned with depth.
Benjamin Demott was my advisor, so I knew where his office was, a nice spot, and I would go there sometimes to talk with him, and when he found out I played guitar in the jazz ensemble and with less respectable bands he gestured to the grand piano behind us and wanted to play.
This is before he went away, suddenly, I thought, without warning, on sabbatical to a college in the South.

The next semester I received my introduction to the basics of literary criticism in William H. Pritchard’s course, English 21. We read Arnold. We tried to make something of what we felt personally to be the greatness of Shakespeare. We read a Donald Hall poem about following the Red Sox. We struggled with The Fairy Queen, and then Derrida. I worked hard. I didn’t hit my stride ‘til the last third of it, when I came up with a line about a critic wishing us to think for ourselves rather than go about reading those things by some standard or understanding that spoke of a ‘litmus test to the tiretracks of the intellectual elite.’ Pritchard read that out aloud. It was something I had come up with spontaneously, and with thought, as I write now. The last paper was a comparison of Their Eyes Were Watching God with A Passage to India, and Pritchard liked my conclusions.

And then sophomore year came along. The summer was good. And while I found myself a slow reader, I knew I could get to the bottom of things, through time and some sort of magic I didn’t quite understand but had great great faith in. It had sort of become my music, to read, to get a story, a poem, things like that.

I took a course, a big class as far as the space it took up in the old library’s carpeted lecture pit, concerning 20th Century American Lit. We started with Drieser, and I was the first one to speak up and say, that Druet was a company man, and that no, I didn’t feel superior to him, and though I had the floor Townsend, whom I took to be an old friend of the family from my brother’s time in nursery school in Amherst as he had a beautiful blond daughter to my brother’s agility at everything, gave the floor away to some pushy kid in the front. That was the foreshadowing of a great paper I wrote on my first experience of literature as epiphany, studious Hemingway and his first collection of stories, In Our Time, which I soaked up. It was a paper on The End of Something, about a young man realizing something lacking in a relationship with his young lady friend, painted so beautifully against the night camp sky of a fishing trip. I loved the story so much, like going into a museum when one didn’t know there was such a thing as a museum. I marked up each word like a musical notation, each word. As I was in the process of writing, which took about two weeks past due, working on it solid, I got a note in the mail from Townsend warning of me of 'rapidly developing academic trouble.' And for my paper, I received not a single note of comment. It was marked with C minus when I got it back. That was it.
And then later, when he became my thesis advisor, Townsend, when I handed him the very same paper, offered that my writing had improved considerably since sophomore year, to which I muttered what it was, to which he said nothing, absolutely nothing in response. Fuck you. Teaching must be difficult. I shouldn't complain.

I had picked out 17th Century British poetry, with David Sofield as instructor. And he was a cool guy, and we learned, and sometimes when we read Donne or something else I wanted to excuse myself, go out into the hallway and have a good chuckle at the bawdiness and the beauty. “The Indias of spice and myne,” exotic lands to me and worth study quite naturally, was one I liked. So did I come to love John Donne, for many reasons, for song, and lyric and for “go and catch a falling star.”
And so came the first paper that I found myself unable to finish by staying up all night. Now I needed to hang on, to get at the particulars of what I saw deep within in what I read, the deep impression, I wanted to capture it all, to tell the truth about what I saw, and then to write it, to answer the question. The poem—I began a need to commit them to memory and read them aloud now—had something to do with “Who'ere rigged fair ships to lie in harbours,/ and not to deal with all.” I worked as hard and as long as I could, and began finally after many attempts to describe the care with which Mr. Donne had chosen each word and what with such great dexterity they meant. For the language was, as is clear in Shakespeare, very free, young, flexible and expressive, with words having a sort of sign as to what they might meant, so that you could grasp a word without hearing it or seeing it ever before.
And Sofield liked that paper. It impressed him. And I ran into him coming up alongside the Chapel one overcast day, and he smiled and recognized me and said some really good and encouraging words for me for my paper and the way I wrote. "Touche´," he wrote. "I wished I had put it that way," he wrote. And his comments on it too were something to always be a cause for my pride and a tribute my sense as a young man and reader. And it was as if Donne had looked down through the foamy clouds and smiled at me himself. A week late, and he was cool, and I got an A minus. The minus for being late.
The problem came when we began to read Paradise Lost. And the last paper, the assignment was to explicate that part where Adam and Eve get kicked out of the Garden of Eden and all the winds, the Levant and the Ponent and the other winds started blowing, and I knew all of a sudden I was in deep shit. And the cruel thing was, this was assigned for us with a week to go, such that studying the problem so intently, I missed a reading of Emily Dickinson poems in the Chapel, and as far as I know I was the only one caught out struck dumb by having to bring Spencer to, as I knew it, life.

I stayed late. Everyone was leaving. I propped the thick book up, and I read it over and over. I moved my stuff into another room in another house. And it didn’t go anywhere. Nowhere at all. And finally, in failure, I went home.

It took the knowledge that I was going to fail to help me finish, or rather to begin, or rather to see that what Adam turns to, when everything has gone down, that he turns to words, words to face his fallen grace and everything gone wrong, like an Irishman singing a song of sorrow for freedom in that beautiful way songs that I like are sung, as by a young Shane MacGowan.
Summer came. I went home in shame. I worked on the paper, finally got it done without understanding my dad’s displeasure, almost anger where he was never angry, at something. It was not meant for me, and I did not feel it was directed at me, though I felt sorry about it all. What could I do? I was doing what I had learned so far, and now taking it to geometrical conclusion.

In my junior year, I made some recoveries. I studied some Modern British Fiction with Maud Ellman, daughter of the famous Joyce scholar. And there was a good moment in class at the old Octagon science chamber, when everyone was saying nothing and the page was turning on Eliot’s Preludes with the teacher just saying it was a pessimistic poem, pessimistic about humanity, I stuck up my hand to not let it go, and said that I didn’t see it that way, but that we were really animals, my hands trembling all the time, and that this was the best part of us.
I had to write a paper for it, somehow or other, not my choice, and that too took a long time, but she had smiled at me when she saw me reading and thinking on the old steps of the Chapel’s portico in the fall, and understood, and had a few good things to say about a paper that was late, but which I found like learning how to do brain surgery, as other things you have to learn by doing yourself, through investing yourself.

Then what happened? Somewhere along the line I had to find a new advisor, DeMott leaving. I got my pal Townsend. Pritchard didn’t want me. No one wanted me. That’s what I got for being Demott’s special friend, and maybe he had in mind teaching me a special lesson to gird me for life. That’s the kind of sweet and big hearted guy he was in life, a very special person the likes of which one rarely finds, and one who should be found often in academia and amongst teachers. Maybe he wanted me to be able to play music even when things were going against the band rather than with.

This left the rituals of senior year. The thesis, for those of us who want to be academics. I picked the last works of Hemingway, to show that his work had come full circle, to go back, as I called it, an abandonment to the textual truths of life, the dimensions we are stuck in, in other words, that he wrote out line by line in those not so well regarded works like Dangerous Summer, Islands in the Stream, Old Man and the Sea.

And the last one was Pritchard. 20th Century Poetry. Having been to Yeats’s grave, and laying feather on it, as a child, I thought that would be the right end. He came to me first. I never got your first paper. The second one was just about due. Well, I never wrote it. So I went to go see him. I didn't see myself as able to write any more papers. I loved the Yeats, the Hardy, the Larkin, as much as more, fascinated, as anything else.
Well, I’ll pass you, he said. It won’t be a good grade.

Thanks a lot, I said.


Poor F.S. Fitzgerald ends Gatsby with a heart-felt homage to the time when just the Indians roamed East and West Egg, when it 'was just there', nothing more than it was, not made into anything luxurious or attached to monetary value and prestige, back when its prestige was merely that which anyone could bring to it through their own simple thoughts of the sweet inner life we all have in us. Birds made their home there, there were trees, and water coming and going. One didn't need any overblown self-image constructed on luxury living.

There is not much moralizing, beyond some symbolism here and there, to The Great Gatsby. The small poetic moment at the end does not beat one over the head. It is made deeper, wider, more meaningful and yes, more poignant, by the brave and generous gesture it was on Fitzgerald's part, to share his small gain of enlightenment with the rest of us as his life marched on to the crack-up and other sorry pieces of his end.


The great teachers were non-teachers, not of the profession, people familiar with everyday people including the lowlifes and the untouchables. Jesus, Buddha, writers like young Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Carver, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, people not unlike Shane MacGowan. They were people who'd pretty much passed on any chance to have a normal profession.

Literature is the study of personally attaining enlightenment toward the true nature of reality.

However, there is the tendency for crap to reign supreme in popularity. Crap is necessarily complex, the conflict of bedeviling ego voices, in the popular model in fiction of conflict and resolution.

As opposed to a less popular model that works by a steady resolution toward enlightenment that all are capable of. Melville has it that you put a man on his two feet and he will end up by water sooner or later. Shakespeare’s great poetic sensibility leaves it to the lowly fool to bring forth wisdom. And so there lies a peril in avoiding the usual foibles people are subject to, of wine and foolishness.

There are many reasons why writers never claim directly to be teachers. They would not immediately see it that way. Too busy making mistakes.

How to put all the vastness of higher dimensional thought into the space of one’s own small life? (I.M. Pei attempts this in his museums.) It would seem impossible, inappropriate, unconnected. It would look, if you tried, to be the worst goofing off, laziness, fucking around.