Notes on the State of Poetry

I really don’t like much contemporary poetry. I try to read the journals. I’ll find new ones and subscribe for a few months. I’ll check out new popular poets that i read about. But nothing keeps my interest. I’m mostly doing it to keep in practice. And often, after I’ve read contemporary poetry, I’ll immediately reach for something older afterwards, like a palette cleanser, as if to remind me what I’m searching for, to remind me why I love reading poetry in the first place.

I’m not sure why I don’t like much of what gets written today. I find it’s not the case with any other art I enjoy. I like new films, new music, new novels. I enjoy the old and the new equally in those cases, and I find one better than the other. But poetry is different.

Partly I blame academia, which is the sole arbiter of the poetic kingdom, much like Hollywood is of the movies. Poetry is intimately connected with the universities, with MFAs and writer’s workshops. And while it’s an old refrain to blame the writing mills of the universities, as someone who’s been in them myself, I think I have some experience to be able to comment on them.

I recently watched a Ted Talk on the uniformity of college application essays, how students have to churn out the same formulaic essay about overcoming an adversity in their life in order to be considered for admission. They write what they think the admissions board wants to hear. I feel like the same is true of poetry workshops, and of the kinds of books that get published by the university presses. It’s the same voice, the same content, what is most easily recognizable. The Poet is supposed to bear their rawest emotions, seasoned with appropriate wryness and turn of phrase, wrapped up in something like an identity. Or it must be airy nothing. The clippings of musings that point toward a mirage that, upon closer inspection, turns out to be nothing.

I’m dying for a wholly original voice with an authoritative point of view on things.

Cultivating a Worship of Nature as an Artist

Among artists Nature is the Mother of all Muses. She is the Supreme Deity. Alpha and Omega. The Sublime. Every single thing an artist produces is an imitation of Nature, Her processes and personalities, Her thoughts and actions. Any artist who hopes to master his art will do so only by becoming more precise, more truthful, in his representation of the acts of Nature. To do so, he must pledge allegiance to Her like a nation, swear fealty like a knight, bow and make sacrifices like a supplicant.

By Nature I mean something like Spinoza’s notion of God. Nature as Substance. Nature as the organism called Reality. Through Her comes all inspiration, all objects of our attention and all modes of thought. The dark and light materials of all artistic creation are themselves les objets d’art of Her One True Art, and so the great artist gives thanks to Nature the same way he gives thanks to the instrument makers for making the tools with which he practices his craft.

Orpheus was said to be the greatest of all artists. Both a musician and a poet, Orpheus was beloved by Nature because he could, through his art, stir the stones and set the trees to dancing. Every artist aspires to such a condition. To compose great works so that Nature herself takes notice. Animals, running into Orpheus in the woods, would stop what they were doing to listen to his music. His singing was so beautiful he calmed the Clashing Rocks and saved the Argonauts from the sirens, who stopped their own bewitching songs to hear his. 

It’s the highest aim of an artist to change his surroundings through his art. So is Orpheus the archetypal artist because he affects Nature, and Nature is not easily impressed. Her works are great already. What does She care what we do? But a great artist can catch Her eye. 

So how did Orpheus do it?

Continue reading “Cultivating a Worship of Nature as an Artist”

Stone Age

Each section of Figments consists of variations on a theme. The first section, “Of Language,” uses tropes of languages and letters.

I was interested at the time in how language evolved. How did uttered sound first acquire meaning? How did it evolve to signify something other than the music that it made, and how was it refined and abstracted to represent complex ideas and strings of thought? Playing with the tropes of “ages” of human civilization, I had in mind that words first arose from a direct association of sound with action (in this case a violent action).

Stone Age

Imagining the origin of words
one pictures two tribesmen,
friends, standing around a fire.
The first one points to a stone
and sort of grunts. The second
furrows his australoid brow and
repeats the sound. From then on
when either needs a stone he
simply points and goes ongh.

But what need is there for words
between friends? If the two had
the pleasure of each’s company,
enough to know and utter poetry,
what’s the point of words at all
when just the pointing would do?
Who else is a friend but him who
knows my meaning without my
having to say anything at all?

Picture those same friends enemies,
the one having overtaken the other,
cast him on his back in stunning
internecine war, leans poised over,
a hand upraised, with that same stone,
its sharp wedges, its blunt peens,
incanting its name victoriously,
seized by a prophet’s madness.

The last word becoming the first
adopted into the quiver
when it was discovered later
how the next person need only
hear it uttered and that was it
that was the end of it.

The Fool to the King

A poem for @davechappelle and his opening monologue on SNL.

Chappelle’s standup seems as polished and nuanced as an essay, and yet he performs it like a true orator, as though he’s just speaking off the cuff and telling a story as it comes to him, or as he heard it. It’s thoughtful and extemporaneous at once. I would even say sublime, if sublimity is the synthesis of high and low.

He reminds me of the old trope of the jester in medieval courts being the one person who could truly criticize the king. He could speak the truth to him by concealing it within a joke and say the things that people knew but couldn’t say.

The Fool to the Court

for Dave Chappelle

And I and the peasants cheer

the way he insults the crown

in front of all, including the king,

with lords and ladies gathered,

and he is so good and graceful

with his words, and chooses them

so carefully, that each audience laughs

for different reasons at the same thing

and does not know how the other

could be laughing at the same time

as they are and not upset the king,

who is this reign a tyrant, and whose

sneer of cold command in secret gazes

like the eye of Sauron for its ring.

Ozymandias Revisited: Sam Bankman-Fried

Ozymandias is one of British Romantism’s most enduring poems. Written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1817 and published the following year, it is a perfect sonnet. It accomplishes so much in only 14 lines. Lyrical, narrative, and dramatic all at once, with a complex rhyme scheme, it is a powerful indictment of Man’s ambition and hubris.

Here is the figure of a once-eternal authoritarianism, an Egyptian Pharaoh, his legacy buried in the changing sands, a monument to tyranny and to tyranny’s inevitable end.

Rilke thought of poems like art-objects not unsimilar to statues. They cast stories into forms we recognize, not bodies but ideas. Shelley cast his idea into a poem the same way that an artist sculpts their statue.

I’ve had the idea to do some variations on Shelley’s poem for awhile now. My first attempt was a sonnet about Mobutu, a former African dictator. But it struck me last night, after reading about Sam Bankman-Fried and the collapse of FTX, that the variations need not always be about dictators.

Ozymandias is not just a poem about a dictator and his monument. The poem itself is a monument to hope for those who toil under the ruinous consequences of zealous ambition. It is a testament to enduring the catastrophes that plague society when men and women succumb to their egos, when they play gods and lack wisdom. The indifference of Nature to Ozymandias’s proclamation inscribed on his pedestal, the “lone and level sands that stretch far away,” is not only a suggestion of the Pharaoh’s fruitless ends, but the hope that life for everyone else continues on long after the mad tyrant is gone.

Ozymandias Revisited

Sam Bankman-Fried

I met a tourist from Nassau who said—

“One oversized blue-velvet beanbag lies

on the office rug, unused, that was his bed,

amid the clutter of startup supplies.

A sea of spinning chairs, and monitors,

six to a desk. Their walls of black screens,

hung with headsets, tell of what occurs

when the good is pursued by any means.

And behind the gatehouse of Albany

these words are typed out to his users

from the infinity pool on the balcony:

I fucked up, and should have done better.

Nothing beside remains to the losers

but the balmy Bahamian weather.”