Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Safety Dance

I think we've all noticed by this point that the American economy is in the proverbial crapper. If for some reason you've been deaf and blind to the thousands of articles and/or news reports on the state of the Dow Jones, the housing market or the cost of food, there is always the personal experience of realizing that you cannot, in fact, afford something that once was taken for granted.

As S. points out to me when I start getting apocalyptic (the sole reason I work out is to be sure I can run after scarce goods when it all comes down), we are fortunate to have enough expendable income to cover most extremes. If rice triples in price, we will still be able to afford to buy it. It doesn't mean priorities won't change. It doesn't mean we won't feel the squeeze, or that psychologically we won't feel anxious. But we'll be able to eat.

Remembering this helps me to be thankful for the fact that I am in the top itty-bitty percent of this world that is not truly suffering from poverty. Real poverty. Not "I-can't-afford-to-live-in-Manhattan-and-I-don't-have-any-new-Prada" poverty. Not "waxing-my-eyebrows-AND-my-bikini-line-is-getting-too-pricey" poverty. No, not even the poverty that wakes up at 5:30am to take a train an hour before working nine hours of manual labor. Even that (which looks like poverty to most first-worlders) is poverty relative to the wealth of (in this case) New Yorkthat rubs up against it on a daily basis--poverty that only knows itself by immediate comparison to those who "have" for as far as the eye can see.

There are days when I feel poor. Days when I've sweat myself into a funk on the platforms of the city's heaving underbelly, only to finally get on a train without air-conditioning, packed to the gills with people, their unsavory offspring and their large plastic sacks filled with stuff. (And that's on a car without any homeless.) Days when I fall down the stairs, when my back spasms from carrying my groceries home after a long day at my desk, when I stub my toe on the door, when the refrigerator breaks, when our neighbors blast bluegrass just as I'm going to sleep, when the air is so polluted and heavy that I become asthmatic just from stepping outside, when the sidewalks are covered in dog shit, when....when everything conspires to make city life the dirty, ugly hell suburbanites claim it is.

But this isn't poverty, really. Poverty of the spirit, maybe. Definitely poor morale. But not the poverty that looks around the room (if there is a room to be looked around) and sees no possibility of food, water or shelter. Instead, it's a psychological poverty. The poverty that is fed, but that is fearful of not being fed. Of being full, but fearful of not being full. Of having, but forever fearful of losing.

Some might call this the purest expression of the animal human drive to live, to procreate, to conquer. There are certainly moments when this view feels true, and right. There are other moments when I wonder whether it's a terrible lie. Whether a perverse extreme of Maslow's hierarchy has taken over our psyche, causing us to run laps around the first level, which is the only level, of his nifty triangle.

As we see in the illustration above, our primary drives are for obtaining our immediate physiological needs. (I never really viewed sex as one of these needs, per se, but I suppose I can see the point.) But I'm left a little cold once we start moving up the ladder. Isn't safety just the control (or illusion there of) that our physiological needs will be met? How did property and morality come into the safety level, I wonder? It seems that for all the jargon, all levels save the top level are little more than stages of security that must be met in order for a being to strike out on the path of self-actualization.

My revised hierarchy:

So, we are big babies. Essentially. But what does this mean in terms of psychological poverty versus economic poverty? Arguably, one will never make it up the ladder if one doesn't obtain the barest means of preserving physiological needs. So, if one is truly poor, one probably cannot make it to safety or love/belonging. Does that mean that the poor do not love their children? Does that mean their children do not feel safe with their poor parents? Hmm.

Let's attack it from a different angle. Let's look at artists. Are we to assume that because one has reached the "top," and thus tapped into creativity, that he or she has obtained safety? Sexual intimacy? Self-esteem? The consistent means with which to buy food and other trappings of a safe, middle-class life? Hardly.

In fact, it seems anyway you cut it, this structure is based on a very middle-class assumption that "safety" is the prevailing force moving us around. That we are but in search of health and property. So why doesn't art stop being created in poor countries? During times of war or famine? (There are clearly stressors put on artists NOT to create during these times, but the history of humanity speaks against any sweeping argument for economics-based creation.)

My mother used to tell me that in China, telling a man his wife was fat was taken as a compliment. I suppose Maslow would agree.

I'm going to think about this a little more.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Punctuate Me

Ah, excess. Let me count the ways. Sometimes excess arrives in the guise of Sunday afternoon, reading in bed until 4pm before sluggishly realizing that Sunday is almost gone. I hate that Sunday-almost-gone feeling. Nothing touches on my mortality anxiety like Sunday afternoon.

This might be a good time to bring up one of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning."

COMPLACENCIES of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug, mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice. 5
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead, 10
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre. 15

She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries: “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering;
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
We live in an old chaos of the sun, 20
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or Island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; 25
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings. 30

This is but the beginning. If you like the vibe, check out the link. Especially on a Sunday morning, when you are lounging in your favorite peignoir.

Right now some of my favorite lines are:
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of night and day,
Or Island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable."
That covers all the bases of Western religious/mystic thought for the past few, oh, millenia. And, at least as of 1917 when this was published (Thank you, Harriet Monroe), we arrive at solitude. But not just any solitude -- solitude bookended by absolute freedom and mortality, basking in the mythic shadow of religious tradition. Now is that poetry or what? (I know, I know, it's that whole Wednesday's child thing again.)

What here is excessive? I suppose it depends who you ask. It might (understandably) be the image of me in a peignoir eating oranges and sighing over my soul's mortality. Some don't like Stevens dated syntax. Some don't like his lush, trip-to-Byzantium-by-way-of-Conneticut imagery. Others just find his work obscure, and (heavens!) difficult. And then, to add insult, there are all the end-stopped lines which comes across as archaic and pent-up today. (Or so I've heard claimed.) For the sake of argument, these are not unfair claims when made by twenty-first-century readers. What life is left in the canon of poetry if we do not continually trot out these questions, after all, and decide (if not for others, then at least for our writing selves) what is useful?

Now, I will throw down my punctuation gauntlet right now. I adore end-stopped (whether comma-stopped, hyphen-blocked and colon-spotted) lines. I adore punctuation in poetry in a way that sometimes makes me afraid for my writing life. I've had knock-down-drag-out debates with other poets about comma-bracketed adjectives that appear mid-line (i.e., "silence, expectant, sings"). I've walked out of poetry readings led by highly-estimable critics and poets because their readings were rife with crimes-against-punctuation. I've suffered goosebumps, imaginary nosebleeds and spiritual seizures while listening to "actors" stumble through recitations of Othello.

Okay, so I'm a serious punctuation-head. That much is established, and I promise not to list my credentials again. Before I end this tangent and come back to my target, though, I'd like to explain why I feel so strongly about punctuation. It isn't (as many likely suspect) that there is a buttoned-up schoolmarm holding court in my brain. Heck, I like contractions such as "ain't" and "ya'll," and fully believe that any word that can be spoken is in fact a word--whether it is "correct" or not. The issue I take with punctuation is that it's purpose is so simple, yet so gravely abused--and nowhere is that abuse more severe than in poetry, a form relying more than most on rhythmic speech.

There are varying theories as to when and how punctuation came to into use. For my concerns here, I will take the emergence of punctuation marks in fifth-century B.C. Greek plays as a start. Euripides and Aristophanes (et. al. and others) employed a simplified system in order to guide actors in how to perform/read their plays. This formula was improved upon by that hot-shot Shakespeare, who used punctuation (and capitalization) to similar ends.

What does this mean to poets? It means that if an adjective is set off in commas, it is MEANT by the writer to be set off in commas, so that when read, it achieves a specific effect or emphasis. If I had meant to write "silence expectant(ly) sings," that's what I would have written. If I had meant, "expectant silence sings," then I'd have written that. But what I meant was "silence, [pause] expectant, [pause] sings."

So too if Stevens, or Eliot, or anyone, had meant to enjamb his lines, then enjamb they would. And if you are reading them, you darn well better stop that line when the lines tells you to. It would be disrespectful not to, and sets a terrible precedence for interpretation. Like with translation, opportunities still abound within poetry for interpretation. With poets like e.e. cummings or W.C. Williams, these opportunities are greater than with Stevens or Marianne Moore. When enjambment is more common than end-stops or purposeful punctuation, then the reader does have choices.

And some are better choosers than others. To date, Philip Levine is still my most favorite reader of other writers' poetry. When I heard him read W.C.W.'s "This is Just to Say," I could have almost been convinced to leave S. in the dust, and offer my long-gone plum to Mr. Levine for the taking. What did he do? How did he do it? Well, he followed the lines and the punctuation, and added enough of his own experience to the intonation to make it come. so. very. alive.

That is a gift. Not everyone has it. When I heard Harold Bloom read Donne's "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day," I left the reading in tears. I love that poem. Intensely. And that poem provides us with a clear punctuation map. So why did Mr. Bloom read it as though he had taken three Percasets and swallowed a metronome? My main regret for leaving the readings is that I did not get to ask him that question. I have no doubt that Mr. Bloom would have had a clear, cogent, well-researched answer that would have made my feelings feel two-feet small. He probably would have launched into a lengthy explanation of Jacobean rhythm, and how original manuscripts of Donne's didn't even include punctuation. (Sort of doubt that last bit, but who knows.)

I should be most embarrassed to admit that I still don't know the answer to that question. I think the punc poet inside me doesn't want to know, because she loves the poem how it reads in all it's punctuated glory. And that, my friends, is nothing less than a weakness.

On that note, I will end with a poem that first set all of these thoughts on poetry and punctuation into motion, one close to my heart and also one that I find to be maddeningly challenging to read. If you know any good recordings of this, let me know. I'm always on the look out for punc. porn.

since feeling is first

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
- the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other; then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

e.e. cummings

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Shine a Rock-Star Light

So, tonight I am going to attend Jarvis Cocker's concert at Terminal Five with my friend S. (Not to be confused with partner S., as he largely prefers to abstain from shows in general, unless there is promise of comfortable chairs and cocktail waitresses serving sidecars. And who can blame him? Standing-room-only makes my feet hurt just thinking about it.) There is the distinct chance that we may go backstage after the show, as my friend S. is a friend of a friend (if you get my drift).

This may be the first time in my entire life that I've ever had even the glancing opportunity to "go backstage." And thus, my first experience of the feeling: I'm not sure I want to. But not just that I don't want to...that it actually makes me NERVOUS to think about this happening. Which (as Wednesday's child and a generally inquisitive person) makes me ask, "why?"

Why would I be nervous at the prospect of shaking hands and making brief small talk with a sweaty British pop star? Why would I be actually indignant about the opportunity to gain access to the hallowed area stalked by fan(atics) searching to touch the damp hem of a headliner's tee-shirt?

I have found that in my brief and stilted career of meeting "famous" people, I suffer from a curious combination of star-struck and star-sour. I am mightily annoyed that I am intimidated by the prospect of going backstage, and even more mightily annoyed that I am nervous about that. I am catastrophically annoyed that, despite my deep disinterest in things-and-people-famous, I am not immune to the strike of starlight.

I cannot say star-struck. That would be too strong. I haven't ever been to one of Cocker's concert, or to any of Pulp's. In fact, yrs trly doesn't really go to shows all that often unless they involve costumes or jazz interpretations of Bjork. In other words--sillyness mixed with pageantry. The Sincere Rock Show (or Pop Show, or whatever the kids are calling it these days) gives me the hives, in the way that seeing middle-aged men exposing chest hair at art openings while chatting up younger women does. I DIDN'T SAY IT WAS FAIR. It's just the way I feel about star culture in general, and rock culture in particular.

Yet the possibility for a strike o' starlight to become a star-striking looms in the eves, and I am sore afraid. How much easier it is to meet a famous person in less famous settings. Like, say, at a friend of a friend's party, where the conversation can go something like this:

Friend-of-a-Friend: This is M. She is a poet and designer. M, meet Star. He's a star.

Star: Hi. Poetry, huh. What do you design?

Me: Nice to meet you. I work in advertising...designing advertising stuff. You know, to support poetry. Whew, it's hot tonight, huh?

--Silence falls as Star looks at his/her shoes or over
M.'s shoulder, and M. does same.--

Friend-of-a-Friend: Friend said you two went to see the new MoMA exhibit yesterday. How was it?

--Palpable relief followed by stilted, idle chit-chat.
M. excuses herself and wanders back to bar.--

What exactly is motivating this exchange? Well, embarrassment for one. For some reason, I always assume famous people are so tired of meeting people that they don't have much to say. So, I don't really expect them to say anything, and I don't really like asking them questions. The closest I came to letting myself run off at the mouth before someone whose work I admired was when I met Anne Carson in April. Let me just say


I did not tell her this, in so many words. I did not wax rapturous about how much I like her work, and her daring, and her long, gray-speckled braid. No, I did not. Instead, I said:

Me: Nice to meet you. I really admire your work.

She (placidly, sweetly): Thank you.

Me (unable to leave it at that): In particular, your book on eros. It had a large influence on me.

She: Yes...I liked that book very much once, too.

--Awkward pause. Will M. continue to rhapsodize about A.'s work?
Will compliments become saccharine? Will A. cry and run from the room,
or will she turn her back on the maladroit young poet?--

Me: Well, I guess books are better than kids. When you don't like them anymore, they're easier to get rid off.

She: (Actually laughs.)

This was one of my better moments, trust me. But afterward, I thought, why on earth didn't I just leave it at "I admire your work." And then I said to myself, "why not??? Don't people like to hear that people admire their work?" And then I thought, "why do I have such complicated, WASP-y feelings about fame? I was raised Catholic, dammit! I should be on my knees, kissing her proffered knuckles and weeping!!!"

Yet there it is. Maybe WASP-y is the wrong word. I was tempted to write blue-collar, but I'm not sure that would be accurate, either. I never saw either of my parents interact with someone of insinuated prestige, except perhaps a general at a National Guard ball. Does that count?

It may actually be the perfect example of why I'm pent-up about fame. Growing up in the military, hierarchies bear a tremendous amount of weight on one's life. Fortunately for me I did not grow up on base, where I've heard it's worse (i.e. hierarchy among the officers' kids versus enlisted, sub-hierarchy among generals and colonels versus majors and captains, etc. etc.) My fathers dealt with these hierarchies like they were Protestant caste systems. Yes, you were born into your place--but with hard work, sobriety and tenacity, you could rise to the top by virtue of your, well, virtues. Whenever I did see my father interact with superior officers, he was every inch the army professional. "Yes, sirs" and "No, sirs." and "Thank you, sirs" would float in the air around his head, stiffly perched until he was given leave.

That's right. Given leave. I seem to recall that my father was the superior officer in our house, and our interactions were guided by a similar principle. This may be an exaggeration of my memory, but I suspect it's at least partially true. There was obeisance and discipline before those who must be obeyed, with the hope that one day my virtues would lead up to a satisfactory, independent life where I was master of my own domain.

But what if you are supposed to be awed into obeisance by someone whose "virtues" you find spurious? What if you are confronted by an entity whom society places "above" you, in terms of accomplishments and recognition, but whose accomplishments you find less interesting than their person? What if, under all of this, you chafe at the idea of hierarchies and are resentful of your innate response to the heirs-apparent? And what if you hate their art AND their person?

Well, I suppose those questions are a good start at summing it up. But we can't forget vulgarity! While I may greatly admire someone's work, and may also be awed/intimidated by their power and success, there's a part of me that finds the whole thing vulgar. Hence the WASP comparison. But my leanings are definitely more socialist...it's not that I feel anything-they-can-do-I-can-do-better, but that just-because-you-make-good-music-doesn't-mean-that-social-workers-aren't-as-worthy-of-adulation-so-why-am-I-making-a-big-deal-about-you-when-I-don't-even-value-what-you-do-enough-to-pay-for-the-album? (Shh. Don't tell.)

Or it could be fear that I will say something embarrassing because I'm fighting these internal struggles? Fear of being rejected by someone generically valued by society? Anxiety of influence?

THAT IS IT. I am afraid that I will want to wear Jarvis Cocker glasses. I am so, so afraid.

He does have great style, though. Maybe I should just relax and go with the flow. Even though I was a fat kid, it's no reason to be pent up about the guy. I never robbed anyone, after all, so why be a chump. I'll even tell him I admire his work, should the opportunity come to pass.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Oh, the Misogyny...

If you were a girl-child in the late '80s, you probably remember playing a game called MASH. MASH was prototypical of girl games from my childhood. Centered on pubescent girls' budding interest in sex, the game envelopes those interests in the safer trappings of adulthood-as-we-then-knew-it.

On a sheet of paper, the capital letters M-A-S-H were written at the top. These letters stood for Mansion, Apartment, Shack or House. Under this header appear categories involving other features of our futures...features such as cars, husbands, jobs and more, depending on the tenacity of the players. Each category held four options, which were eliminated through a complicated counting process that involved (I think) the roll of a die. Once only one option was left in each category, you had your future--be it living in a shack with Billy Brat with six children all named Starlight, or holed up in an apartment with the janitor while pursuing a career in hair-braiding.

Here's a sample:

I am still vaguely outraged that my parents allowed my sister and I to play this game. That despite my father's desire for me to be overtaken with a hot, burning love for soccer, he mirthfully shook his head at us instead, sitting in a circle on the living room floor, planning out the social architecture of our futures with notebook paper and pencils.

But then, I suppose I may never have bothered with college had I known I would end up living in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn without even a bicycle, making money by perjuring my creative standards daily in corporate America, far far away from the goals I imagined myself reaching before I stood teetering on the cusp of 30. But then there's S. Though it's hard to speak for my ten-year-old self now, the promise of a sweet bald man probably would have tipped the scales heavily, thus convincing me to continue my studies and not end up barefoot-and-pregnant in Florida. Probably.

Which brings me to the second in today's bugaboo blitz: M*A*S*H, the movie. Just in case the clip of the movie poster to the right isn't clear enough, here's another shot of the graphic used to market Altman's film:

Tasteful, right? Because what better way to make an anti-war statement than an inverted peace-sign made of a pair of legs?

I used to love watching this television show. From my recollection of the series, the female characters were nothing like those portrayed in the actual film--i.e. they were not barely-veiled targets for harassment and abuse.

Now, I grew up in a military house, and spent enough time around officers and at military events to kinda guess that even in the '90s,the military wasn't exactly a haven from sexism. However, I also saw a very positive side of the military--dedicated fathers and husbands, members of the community, working together for a cause they believed in strongly.

As an adult, I recognize that many of those "dedicated" members of the community could very well have been alcoholics, wife-beaters, philanderers, liars, cheats or even sexists. And, as a cultural participant, I am not immune to the histories of terrible actions taken by troops, past and present, during war. But the protagonists Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest and their male cohorts go far beyond the call of middle-brow hazing during their "use of humor and hijinks to keep their sanity in the face of the horror of war" for the sake of entertainment (Thank you, IMDb.)

I don't want to trot out the details, for those who haven't yet had the pleasure, because it makes my blood pressure rise recounting just how these two use female soldiers to redirect their anger at having been drafted, their frustration with military protocol AND their self-congratulatory prankster/playboy ways. What I DO want to address is the issue of viewer identification. Like with the MASH game I played as a kid, participating in a game (or film) only works if one can identify with it.

My huffy outrage turned to genuine puzzlement after watching M*A*S*H, because the reasons women may have had for enjoying this film in its heyday seemed inscrutable. Then I remembered Laura Mulvey. (You knew that was coming, didn't you?)

According to Laura Mulvey's highly-influential "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," "classic" film puts all viewers in the masculine subject position, leaving the women in the film to be viewed not as selves, but as objects of desire. (In a very reductive nutshell.) Thus, even female viewers who may be politically opposed to the dynamics of a film will find herself more likely to identify with the masculine eye of the camera--the eye that almost always pursues heterosexual, masculine objects of desire: women and power.

In light of these thoughts, it is not surprising that an enormous feminist outcry was not heard when M*A*S*H came to the silver screen. The main thrust of the film, after all, is war, which in 1970 had a tad more interest for most Americans than did feminism, unfortunate as that may seem. War affects everyone, especially when there's a draft. Thus, my conclusion is that female viewers of this film must have identified with Hawkeye and Duke--the bucks brave enough to flout the authority that sent so many Americans to die in Vietnam.

Yes, they must have identified with the renegade soliders--not the nurses terrorized into granting the two access to a private hospital ward, not the young women taunted with bawdy requests for sexual favors and certainly not the doomed Major "Hot Lips" Houlihan exposed during her shower for the ostensible purpose of finding out whether she is or is not a natural blonde. (Nothing but class.)

And why should they, when other female soliders take part in the humiliation too, laughing at Houlihan as she flounders, wet and screaming, on the floor of the collapsed shower tent? It isn't that Houlihan's character is at all sympathetic. Rather, she is a standard Army-issue rule monkey, and a prig. Add a little sadism, and we'd have Nurse Ratched. Unlike Ratched, though, who is attacked because of her power, Houlihan is sexually harassed into a submission that was never denied. From her first night in the camp when she has sex with one of the soliders to her impotent attempts to lodge complaints to the General, Houlihan's "power" is a joke from the get-go. She is humiliated as an unfortunate emblem of the Army, and all of the humiliation centers around her sexuality. Which, apparently, she can't control, given the number of her attackers she ends up sleeping with before the movie ends.

And yet, women probably went to the movies with their boyfriends/husbands/lovers and enjoyed this film. Were it 1970, and were I a child of the '60s, would I have enjoyed it? I hope I would have been helping Gloria Steinem start Ms., or knocking on doors to advocate for pro-choice legislation. What scares me though, is not knowing whether that would have kept me from spending Friday night at the movies yuking it up.

On a positive note, I've moved past MASH the game, and I can safely say that I've somehow come out on the other side of adolescence without the internalized male gaze...or at least not the part of that eye that can look past violence against women. One could say that looks something like progress.

Monday, July 14, 2008

La Vie en Rose: Proud to be French-Fried

As today is Bastille Day, I felt it would be appropriate to pause from my trap-door ravings in order to muse on francophilia. Last night, S., J. (a visiting friend from Boston) and I had a lovely pro-Frenchie evening: we saw a French film, drank French wine, dined on steak frites and moules frites at a French-ified bistro and then moved on to drink even more wine while discussing literature. Though our last glasses of wine were not, in fact, derived from the French vine, I feel that our two-plus hour conversation about literature (and poetry!!!) sufficiently ups the french-quotient of our evening.

I've always loved how seriously the French take literature and language. Where else but France could a film like Haneke's Caché be made, where the main character is the "star" of a television show dedicated to interviewing writers? That's right, mes amis, a talk show about books.

Ah, la France. The hexagon. The land of frogs' legs and fries, berets and baguettes, pouty lips and ponderous sighs, birthplace of the bourgeoisie and existentialism, home of the can-can and Tin Tin.

I salute you, and will certainly raise at least one glass tonight in your honor.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Trap Doors, Part Deux

Okay. I've been away on vacation, and victim to the shadowy sloth that always awaits my return. Perhaps others experience this post-vacation malaise, too. I suppose that's what people mean when they say they need a vacation from their vacation.

My thoughts were trained upon the trap door even as we were zipping down the steamy Florida corridors and downing Greyhounds. (Not, of course, at the same time.) Just before we left the city's mossy mouth for another humid endroit, I read David Orr's essay "The Politics of Poetry" in the current issue of Poetry magazine that really set my "trap door alarm" into high alert.

Here's a picture of what that felt like:

Not bad as a photo editorial, huh?

Now, after the first three paragraphs (assuming a singular exclamatory remark counts as a paragraph), Orr presents a well-balanced and interesting discussion of poetic versus political rhetoric, and how the arenas overlap. However, I had to approach the article on FOUR separate occasions in order to get through the disastrous trap door that is the introduction.

Shortly before Ohio's Democratic primary, Tom Buffenbarger, the head of the machinists' union and a supporter of Hillary Clinton, took to the stage at a Clinton rally in Youngstown to lay the wood to Barack Obama. "Give me a break!" snarled Buffenbarger, "I've got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies crowding in to hear him speak! This guy won't last a round against the Republican attack machine." And then the union rep delivered his coup de grace: "He's a poet, not a fighter!"


Fortunately, this insult to the sacred mysteries of Poesie didn't go unanswered—within a few days, the poet John Lundberg angrily riposted at the Huffington Post, declaring that he "would be happy to step outside" with Buffenbarger to show him that poets can indeed mix it up. (Smart money is on Lundberg, as Buffenbarger appears to have lost several dozen battles to the combined forces of Little Debbie and Sara Lee.) Yet what was most interesting about the Clinton supporter's remarks wasn't their inaccuracy or intemperance, but the way in which they neatly summarized two assumptions often made about contemporary American poetry and contemporary American politics. (Orr, "The Politics of Poetry")

The first time I read Orr's introductory remarks, I was so annoyed that I kvetched at S. for a good half-hour about hyper-masculinity, its attendant anxiety in those following "non-masculine" career paths and how counterintuitive Orr's "amusing" remarks are to his greater purpose.

Upon the next two attempts to get past these paragraphs and into the meat of the essay, I found myself confronted by an internal roadblock. No matter how sternly I trained my eye on the fourth paragraph, it took me yet another attempt before I could find the escape ladder out of the rabbit hole:
One would think poets might get a little more respect from political speakers, and that political speakers might refrain from comparing their purely verbal existence to the decidedly non-verbal world of physical violence. (Orr, "The Politics of Poetry")
Whew! Finally, we're getting somewhere.

Was it really necessary for Orr to begin his essay with such (frankly) hyper-masculine anxiety? Of course not. Was it creative? Sure. Does it demonstrate skill and virtuosity? Definitely. It's not ever day, after all, that one encounters such elegant turns of phrase when insulting another's rotundity. (See: "Buffenbarger appears to have lost several dozen battles to the combined forces of Little Debbie and Sara Lee.")

If the war of rhetorical styles is that of the passive pen against the aggressive sword, I find it hard to believe that Orr's application of schoolyard-taunt to pub-brawl principle scores a point for poetry. Hilarious in a conversation, yes. Funny in a poem, perhaps. Amusing as a preface to what I assume is meant to be taken as a serious look at poetry's rhetorical power in the political sphere, no.

Aggressive posturing is common, indeed charming, in children. When I was a kid, I had a friend who was a) a boy and b) very sensitive about playing the piano. He was quick to assert that though he played, he still could deal a black eye to any punk who dared to call him a sissy. To my adult ears, the anxiety behind this assertion was obviously a product of the conflict he faced on the complicated road to maturity. (I would say "manhood," but that opens up a whole 'nother issue, and implies that women are never perpetrators of this crime.)

In adults, this posturing has no allure for me--especially in adults who are appealing to readers as intellectuals. That is sort of a question of personal taste, however. Objectively I have no trouble seeing how Orr's ass-kicking remarks might thrill many readers, girding their poetic loins with visions of warrior-bards busting lips in a show of epic power. It's Orr's use of one of our society's baser myths that creates a trap door.

By framing his essay with such remarks, Orr speaks out of both sides of his mouth. Out of one side, he says, "Surely you recognize that my tongue is in my cheek." Out of the other side, he says, "But I will be the first to feel better when one of my poetic brethren punches the ticket of anyone who dares say poetry is weak." Why else mention John Lundberg's response to Buffenbarger?

Now, let's pause for a moment to consider catharsis. During my two-week break, I’ve been turning over my trap-door anxiety (yes, there I said it) to see if it’s really MY problem. After all, who doesn’t enoy a humorous riposte every now and again? Who doesn’t crave that dinner-time comment that turns conversation away from the tiresome and toward the light-hearted? Don’t we ALL sometimes laugh when a politician stumbles on his words, thus rendering his point, for all intents and purposes, null and void? Sure we do. Aristotle covered this all ages ago when he argued against Plato’s misguided proposal that poetry led humans into the clutches of chaotic and uncontrolled passions.
Aside: there is scholarly evidence that the term “catharsis” derives from kathairein, “to purify, purge," and which was normally used as a medical term until Aristotle trotted it out as a metaphor. According to one source on Wikipedia (LOVE you, Wiki), “usually referring to the evacuation of the "katamenia", the menstrual fluid or other reproductive material.” JESUS.
So, as a poet, I would be a bit of a silly-pants if I didn’t stand on the “for” side of the cathartic divide. Of course catharsis is good! This is part of the reason people (the same people who argue with you at your cocktail parties about why poetry no longer functions) turn to poetry at weddings, births, graduations and funerals. The act of breathing in measure and using symbolic/metaphoric/contemplative language brings not only relief to those pesky inner passions, but solace to the suffering. If one were so disposed, one might agree with Aristotle that it keeps us from murdering each other quite so frequently. (When I first typed “frequently,” it came out “freakquently.” Pure coincidence….I think not.)

On a less-exalted tip, humor can provide us with a break from our lofty pensées. I would accept the argument that Orr is doing precisely that—introducing a humorous bit before plunging into a topic that just may be to many readers (surely not readers of Poetry magazine, however) a tad dull or difficult.

But, like any trap door worth its well-engineered salt, it will hit us on the ass the minute we enter if we’re not careful. Humor provides catharsis that, in my humble trap-door-fearing view, can actually release us from the responsibility of pondering the important issues raised by the very practice of release. Instead of sharing outrage of Buffenbarger's, er, less-than-astute Obama-slurs, we end up participating in the very sentiments guiding B's warbling.

But to assume NO ONE spends any time noodling over this textual puzzle would be like assuming that none of us thinks about what gave us an orgasm once we achieve one, right? (We can talk about my hierarchical lingo here in reference to sex later. "Achieve." I should be ashamed.) As such, I assume that I’m not the only one to find herself jammed up by Orr’s comments even as I laughed at them.

Like the foie-gras PBJ, it’s not that Orr’s humor doesn’t work. It’s that the underpinnings of his comments give those he argues against a reason not to listen to the thoughtful remarks that follow. They provide instead a trap door down which some readers may fall without finding their way out. And while I am tempted to claim this is the reader's fault, there is something to politically- and ethically-charged speech that can entrap even the most tenacious of us.

Caveat lector, indeed.

It would be unfair not to mention that Orr can be excused (sort of) for his anxious banterings by virtue of the venue in which the essay appears. If readers are ever to be expected to be aware of how such a text functions, it’s probably in a publication devoted to the rarefied ramblings of poets and poetry critics. Still, in closing, I must mention that the worst crime of this particular type of trap door is that it provides an excuse for readers to dismiss the subject at hand (here, poetry) not only as passive, but as passive-aggressive. And I don’t think Orr would want that, do you?

More thoughts to come on this topic, but now I’m off to prepare for pre-Bastille Day celebrations. Vive Petanque!