Saturday, December 10, 2011


First things first: you should buy this book:

If you are anti-Amazon, it's also available from Alibris or from Sibling Rivalry Press.

Second things second: you should buy this book because buying books of poetry is not difficult, helps the universal purpose of poetry (to communicate), and also keeps the economy healthy. Thus, it's patriotic.

Third things third: you should encourage other people to buy this book because then you can discuss the poems. It will give you something important to talk about aside from your pointless existences or the new ailments and sufferings of your life. 

Fourth things fourth: While you can read the rest of this post without reading Saeed Jones's book, the post will make a little more sense if you've read the poems. Plus, I can't just quote the whole damn thing here; it wouldn't be fair.

"I've heard that some men can survive / on dust mites alone for weeks at a time. // There's a magnifying glass on the night stand, / in case it comes to that." -- "Sleeping Arrangement"

Now, to the point:

I have a general issue with poetry -- I don't think it's a waste of time and ink; that's not a valid critique generally or in this case, even if I believe that the role of poetry has been marginalized in our visual- and narrative-demanding culture. But I tend to see poetry as highly personal and highly personal things like poetry and song lyrics often need to be decoded in ways that cannot always be done successfully, especially if the poet would prefer NOT to let us in. Sylvia Plath, for instance, writes poems that are highly coded. She wants us to experience the poems as poems, not as cliched windows into her soul. "Daddy" has a beautiful rhythm and sound, and it rises to a climax that can be felt when she closes with "I'm through." There's no denying the aesthetic beauty of that poem. 

But once you know that Plath didn't hate her father, that her father taught German at a university, that her father wasn't a Nazi, etc, "Daddy" takes on a new and more complex meaning outside of how beautiful it sounds. No longer is this a "poem about daddy issues." It's now a poem about grief and loss. And grief is so much more profound (in my opinion). How would we know that meaning aside from decoding things? 

Basically, I cannot see a work outside of its time and place or disconnected from its author. This doesn't mean I must know an author's biography to enjoy the beauty of language; it just means that I tend to look for these things to enhance my understanding of the poetry as whole. That jerk TS Eliot would of course scoff and call me a ninny. Fair enough, but he's dead and also willingly spent time with Ezra Pound so I don't really have to worry about him. 
TS Eliot: poet, jerk.

And yet, even if I look at WHEN THE ONLY LIGHT AS FIRE as simply a text, in the way that total dick T.S. Eliot would suggest, I don't miss out on the emotional power of a line like: "And if I ever strangled sparrows / it was only because I dreamed / of better songs." 

Sure I can celebrate that line metrically, but there's a human voice there, a human mind. A mind that is not mine, does not have my background, and yet has succeeded in communicating across the differences of race and class and age to punch me in the gut. I don't need to be Jones or to know him intimately to know that he is a specific, profound human being and that the speaker of this poem (Saeed? Someone else?) has felt something concentrated, unique, and real. TS Eliot wasn't denying that emotions needed to be at the center of poems; it's just the natural outcome of trying to experience art through only an aesthetic lens. Eliot would suggest that there are no barriers between a reader and a piece of art as long as the reader is looking at things aesthetically. I can't know the artist and even if I did, I might not know the artwork any better if armed with knowledge. So, I get what Eliot is saying. I just don't like to think that art lacks blood and fiery synapses.

There are, of course, specific barriers between me and Saeed Jones. I'm a white guy from New Jersey. Jones is an African American born in Tennessee, raised in Texas, who lives in New York City. I'm straight, he's gay. I'm this, he's that. We both wear shoes, we both have eyes, we both write. To paraphrase Tim O'Brien: everything is true if you generalize enough.

Saeed Jones: poet, not a jerk.
But, really, none of this is a true barrier unless I make it one. It would be easy for me as a straight white guy to only read poetry by straight white poets. From New Jersey. Easy, and perhaps not nearly as dull as one might expect. (Seriously, BJ Ward is an excellent poet. So is William Carlos Williams.) But  those labels on bookstore shelves or on Amazon ("Gay/Lesbian Literature" or "Gay/Lesbian Poetry") signal things that can act as barriers even though they do not have to.

Put simply, I don't need to be a gay black man to like Saeed Jones poetry. Just like I don't need to be a British actor to like Shakespeare or a baseball player to root for the Phillies. And yet, the labels can make it easy for me to dismiss a text. 

Think of it outside of poetry for a second. If my wife tells my she wants to see a film that's called a Romantic Comedy I might balk at seeing the film with her. I don't think I need to belabor the point or even suggest certain movies that are "romantic comedies" and yet don't feel like romantic comedies, right? 

Right. So as a straight guy I can read these poems. And as a great poet, Saeed can write about anything he wants without losing the power that he has as a great poet -- the power to wrestle/shape/control/unleash words. He does not have to (and does not) write only about the topics determined by labels. 

Because the labels are guides but they are not the writer. Sure, some writers might be happy to hang onto a label and give their readers exactly what they expect -- that is essentially how genre fiction works, how erotica, thrillers, action movies work. But if we assume that all labeled things are only what their label says, then wouldn't we be seeing the entire world as genre'd? And then we'd see less and less of the world.

"I don't read young adult books."
"I don't read memoirs."
"I don't read books with male/female narrators."
"I don't read gay or lesbian poetry."
"I don't read literary fiction."
"I don't read fantasy novels."
"I don't read."

I can read this:
"After his gasp and god damn / grunt, after his zipper closes its teeth, his tongue leaves / its shadows, leaves me / alone"

and feel a certain kind of loneliness. I don't need to be Jones or the speaker to know that feeling. I don't need to have ever had that loneliness to know that loneliness.

Isn't that what self-professed book nerds love? To feel things we've never felt? May never feel? Isn't that how stories and poems get all wrapped up in the concepts of compassion and empathy? 

True, the labels we are given or adopt (or both) can help draw in people who may understand us before we even speak, who already have expectations about us. Labels help filter the world so if we want to read something by a blonde Latino writer of High Fantasy Novels narrated by dragons, we can find such a thing. But those labels can be trouble -- they can give people excuses not to spend time with our words when our words might be exactly what they need. 

How lonely is that feeling? 

See the world in genres then start cutting out entire genres. See what you're left with: flavorless mush. Worse, the inability to connect to others about stories. 

Worse worse: you write blog posts condemning the very thing you've been guilty of a thousand times; but hopefully you (I) will change.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On exoskeletism

So, here's a blog post about postmodernism. As such, you should know what makes something postmodern:
  1. distracting self-awareness
  2. the potential for resolution cancelled out by a gerbil wheel of perpetual-ness*
  3. constant wordplay that calls attention to language and the author's wit**
  4. the understanding that truth doesn't exist but a yearning that makes one look for it constantly
  5. a fervent belief that language cannot truly capture reality***
  6. a layered feeling whereby the reader seeks out answers to questions but only finds new questions (call this this "Lot 49" aspect.)
  7. Footnotes****
The Crying of Lot 49 is a very very very fine book.
 *(See: Finnegan's Wake which begins in mid-sentence and ends with the beginning of that opening sentence)
**Note that this behavior is not new for postmodernists, but is simply dredged back up from prior movements, such as the metaphysical poets who loved to flaunt their wit, much like monkey's who fling their shit while laughing. 
*** Example: how do the words -- or even the sounds made by the words "My dog is a fat, lazy animal" really capture the truth of her fatness and laziness?

Sable in all her fat, lazy glory.
Now, there are other postmodern traits I could mention, but suffice it to say that the movement as it regards literature is very focused on language and truth. It's the literature of distrust. The stories abound in conspiracy, fueled by the erosion of faith in politics, religion, the family unit, and the human mind as a knowable, reliable, and delightful thing. Basically, when the bombs dropped on Japan in WWII, life and humanity became a joke. Why not laugh at absurdity, there's clearly no god here to keep us in line, right? I see a bumper sticker that says No God, No Peace; Know God, Know Peace and have to laugh. 

But, more to the point, there's the issue of form and how it can overwhelm story when put in the hands of the postmodernist. The postmodernist champions form based on the foundation setup by the modernists. To quote that cat-loving anti-semite T.S. Eliot "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality."

More precisely, he ends the landmark essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" with:

"To divert interest from the poet to the poetry is a laudable aim: for it would conduce to a juster estimation of actual poetry, good and bad. There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence. But very few know when there is expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done."

Emphasis mine, of course. This essay places form over the poet/writer. But the postmodernists end up, in some high-profile cases, placing form over story or character. Think about it this way: if traditional storytelling emphasizes the emotional components of characters and choices (and those choices are plot) then form is the skeleton. In literature prior to postmodernism, the stories are flesh covering bone. 

But in postmodernism, the stories are flesh covered by exoskeleton. Take away the exoskeleton and you're left with a puddle of mush. But who cares about the mush when the exoskeleton is so alien, so wonderful, so not human. ah, and that's the crux of my little analogy -- postmodern stories can feel cold and inhuman.
The postmodernist delights in how stories are told, how narrators may "smile and smile and still be a villain," how details are less meaningful than the delivery. Consider the work of Thomas Pynchon -- an author that writes tangled, conspiracy-laden novels (many of them massive). It's hard to hold on to a particular character in, say, Vineland, but not in The Crying of Lot 49. Oedipa Maas has an unusual name and gets herself lost in conspiracy upon conspiracy, but she's still there, at the center of it all, as the novel ends. While I would have no problem accepting that Oedipa is not an emotionally engaging character, she's at least memorable. Buuuut, her story does not necessarily hinge upon an emotionally engaging quest.

But now consider the great postmodern short story collection The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, who is not just the author but also the main character. (how meta!) Basic summary: O'Brien gets drafted to serve in Vietnam, debates running away to Canada, sees some terrible things, kills someone, hits rock bottom, and then discusses why he's a writer. Throughout, he interrupts his story arc to discuss the process of storytelling and how soldiers cope with the idea of death.

At a few particularly postmodern points, O'Brien declares that a true war story may not be factually true. It may be 100% fiction and yet truer than a story that is 100% factually accurate. He says that story-truth is more true than happening-truth. Put simply, there is some kernel of meaning at the heart of a story -- don't call it a moral, call it a close replication of the feelings the storyteller desperately wants to transfer from him or herself to the audience. "I want you to feel what I felt," O'Brien says throughout the book. It's the only truth left -- the truth of what someone felt in a particular moment. we tell the story to share that feeling (and to bring the dead back to life). It's impossible for language to make a reader/listener feel exactly the same feeling, but with story-truth one can get close.

Now, there's no joking around here. O'Brien believes storytelling saves his life (Vietnam mucked him up, to understate it). Storytelling is a game, but it's not play without consequences. There's delight in storytelling but that delight is part of the medicine. and it's part of the entire story collection. Most importantly, the collection completes the emotional arc of Tim O'Brien the character. It is human postmodernism.

Maybe we can just call it a good book instead of having to label it.
Personally, I have no inherent issue with either "type" of postmodern fiction. I delight in the formal games sometimes and also delight in stories. I have no problem enjoying Pynchon or Don DeLillo (two classic "idea" novelists often accused of writing non-characters). I have no problem enjoying Tim O'Brien or Toni Morrison (two authors credited with emotionally driven novels).

But I understand the objection to the exoskeletonism of certain postmodern texts. And this is where I stop typing even though there seems to be more I could say.
Shout out to Andrew Panebianco for discussing what he calls the "preciousness of postmodernism" and being a co-thinker on the idea of exoskeletism.