Spring and Modernity // 5.16.18

The death of history occurred, and I guess it is silly to suss out just when that was exactly, let us say near early modernity. Whether it prompted modernity or was instead killed by it, I also cannot say. This is just the introductory paragraph, after all, and I am struggling toward my idea.

James Joyce and Ezra Pound both took it upon themselves to rewrite for the world ("make it new"), Homer's Odyssey, Joyce with Ulysses, Pound in the Cantos. Faced with tradition's end, these two, like Dutch boys with their fingers plugging the levee, held the line and died there, Joyce perhaps optimistic about the efficacy of his effort, Pound not at all, for he knew another, larger levee had broken long before, the town was flooded, and there would be no one to come find his corpse or celebrate his sacrifice.

William Carlos Williams (actually something of a Dutch boy) and Louis Zukofsky, neither of them native English speakers (perhaps meaningful) (add to that group also Gertrude Stein), rather than die on the hill of lost tradition, aping Homer on the way, became Homers in their own rights (or perhaps rather Catalluses, or one of each, or someones else), and finding themselves in a world with no history, declared it not a world recently dead, but a world newly born.

And a new world needs poetry.

Spring, on any planet where there are springs, will always lend herself to mythology as the eternal recurring rebirth of the world. Williams and Zukofsky recognized her as such and so took heart, seeing themselves residing in the first spring, rejoiced of a world to write in, and so in return mythologized her once again.

Williams, in his strange introduction to Spring and All, wrote "It is spring. That is to say, it is approaching THE BEGINNING." and later, "Suddenly it is at an end. THE WORLD IS NEW." In spring, the world is becoming new, becoming, not quite new yet.

———"They enter the new world naked,
———cold, uncertain of all
———save that they enter. All about them
———the cold, familiar wind."

A stanza from the titular poem of Spring and All. Zukofsky also, the first stanza of And Without:

———And without
———Spring it is spring why
———Is it death here grass somewhere
———As dead as lonely walks
———As living has less thought that is
———The spring.

Spring both new and not. Pound wrote in forlorn hope, that winter would ever end, that the daylight might somehow (magically?) quit retreating and return again. Williams hoped instead that spring would be accomplished, that the world indeed might be made new, for he had reason to believe it might, he saw it all around.

E. E. Cummings (and to be honest, I can't say with confidence what ever he was doing) wrote: "Spring is like a perhaps hand / (Which comes carefully / out of Nowhere)". His optimism more cautious than Williams, less queasy than Zukofsky.

I know it was largely for practical reasons that each year Zukofsky worked on his long poem "A" in the summers, but also perhaps he wrote then because at last, there was a new world to write in.

The Grandeur That Was Pinkberry // 5.11.2018

I imagine frozen yogurt as a somewhat new artifact. When I was born there was ice cream, and then at some point along came frozen yogurt, and while not entirely displacing ice cream, it took a place of importance alongside, not only as a substitute, but as its own entity, intrinsically new, fashionable, liberal, futuristic. Ice cream has tried to steal (back?) some of this ground, for instance with that flash-frozen garbage that both came and left all of a sudden. But it generally has remained in imagination classic, old-fashioned, conservative, even masculine; the two distinct from each other.

I'm thinking of this because we went to Menchie's a few days ago with my niece, telling her we were off to get ice cream, but that's not true, it's frozen yogurt. Is the assumption that she is not ready to hear about this gay new dessert? Or simply too young to understand the concept, and so is given a simpler, wrong answer, "This is ice cream." I asked my mom when she learned about frozen yogurt, she said it was when she was dating my step-dad, but then remembered, “Isn’t TCBY frozen yogurt?” It is, established when she was a teenager. Will Jamie someday imagine that it came to be during her adolescence, as I imagine it did in mine, as it actually did in my mother’s?

And so, Edgar Allan Poe. I learned in high school—around the same time I discovered frozen yogurt I imagine—that Poe's sordid reputation was a farce. He was not at all the debauchee he was made out (to me) to be, but instead commanded the respect of many of his peers, during his life and long after, and his reputation was a smear job. But when I learned the truth of Poe, it had already (and always) been known. Not new information, just new to me. From Mallarmé’s The Tomb of Edgar Poe:

When an angel proffered pure words to mankind,
Men swore that drunken squalor lay behind

Why, like frozen yogurt, is the truth about Poe something one must come to in adolescence? William Carlos Williams gives a perhaps-explanation for this persistence, “It is to save our faces that we've given him a crazy reputation, a writer from whose classic accuracies we have not known how else to escape.”

Which seems true, but from what, in imagining frozen yogurt as new, are we saving our faces from now?

Crushing // 5.1.2018

Cole (my best friend) and I, in an attempt to suss out those individuals whom we might love, those we hope we might someday even know, will categorize certain folks as “real people.” This is clearly a subjective delineation, as we are both more than willing to immediately vouch to the other for the realness of our brothers, “You can trust me, Jake/Tucker/Noah is a real person.” Statistically, what with the stringency of our allowance to that “real” category, it seems absurd all three of our brothers might be real. So we admit the practice is not empirical in the least. (It is also not necessarily mutual; you might be real to me but not I to you.)

While it is always a stronger case when both Cole and I know the subject, we trust each other according to some (perhaps transitive?) property that states, “If X is real to you, and you are real to me, then X is real to me.” This trust is hard to come by, and resembles the moment Cole exclaimed (I may be misremembering), “I keep telling you that Mad Men is good, that you should watch it. You not watching it feels like an affront to our relationship, that you don’t trust me.” I did watch Mad Men, (now years later I am rewatching it) and the account that contains my trust in Cole received another huge deposit.

As with Mad Men, so music, books, movies, Cole and I urge each other toward, and the designation of “real” (which also could mean true, worth knowing, beautiful, and myriad other things in our conversation) can at times apply to these objects as well. Once, sitting on his couch I played for him various songs by Michael McGuire (you can find at The Supposed So and Dad’s Typewriter), because I could vouch both that the music and the musician were real, and also to compel Cole to make music of his own, as I believe a good tree might likely produce good fruit, and I would like to sit on other couches and play for other real people the music of the Ur-Person, the Form of Real, the Standard Against Which All Others Will Be Measured.

I enjoy coming across these real works, and then telling all the people I know, real or not, what I have found. A few months ago that discovery was Horace and Pete, Louis C.K.’s multi-cam dramedy webseries, for just about a week, until everything came out that compelled me to 1) stop talking about Louis C.K., and 2) find something else to talk about. Revelations (and the possibility of revelations) like those, as well as the rarity of real work, tends to push me toward work I have already consumed—I have watched House, M.D. all the way through at least eight times; these past couple days I am rereading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. With work I know I love, I don’t have to worry about it sucking and I am not in danger of being hurt.

Just as Cole has carte blanche recommendation privilege, so also have certain artists in their promotion of their own work to myself: Allison Janney, Ben Balserak, Chance the Rapper, Claudia Rankine, David Bentley Hart, Joan Didion, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Julianna Margulies, Maggie Nelson, Miranda July, Susan Howe. And in the interest of reducing the task of mining my inheritance that is the entire world, I tend to make sweeping cuts with often baseless standards—eliminations include the Coen brothers, David Sedaris, Doug Benson, the creators of How I Met Your Mother, Jonathan Franzen, the Marvel movies, Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Žižek. I expect none of these will ever make any substantive contribution to my life, even were I to really try to let them.

These categories also serve as a good rubric: if Didion’s Play It as It Lays does nothing for you, I’m not sure we can connect on any substantive level; if, alternatively, How I Met Your Mother produces in you some emotional response that resembles enjoyment, I can’t see how we’d ever get along. (These are both sweeping pronouncements, and not altogether true (nor particularly brave).)

Anyways, as is my wont, I began this essay planning for it to serve as a tract for something else, in this case for the music of Ben Bonessi, but got sidetracked. So let me here state that to my knowledge, Ben Bonessi is a real person, and the music he makes is worth listening to, is in fact the only music on my iPhone that I never skip past. You can listen to/download it all here. It’s really quite good.

Nothing That Has to Be Done // 3.20.18

Five stories:

—A frog is set in a pot of water, and the water set to a boil. Soon, the water gets uncomfortably warm, and the frog jumps out of the pot.

—Eileen Simpson wrote that when she was married to John Berryman he would sometimes leave to see Delmore Schwartz, saying, on his way out the door, "I am off to Cambridge, to show my new poem to God."

—A friend recently went on vacation, and as he is not connected in any especially modern way to the rest of the world—he has a landline, and checks his email at the library—he emailed a few people to inform them he'd be away. A sparse email, but two lines stood out:

There's nothing that has to be done
I don't even feel like doing this

—A blind man stands on a ladder, grasping for hours at where he believes must be the next rung until finally, fed up, he climbs back down the ladder.

—Another man, not blind this time, gets home from a construction job, where his partner inquires, "Why'd you leave? Did you not like it there?"

"No, I finished."

"But, was it not nice? Weren't there lovely people? Why didn't you stay?"

"I...There's nothing more to do. It's done."


So anyways, I am leaving New York.

The Butcher // 3.13.18

My recent obsession with Taoism, and particularly with Chuang Tzu, the ancient sage, has perhaps gotten out of hand. Over Christmas I read Burton Watson's translation of selected writings of Chuang Tzu. A week or so ago I finished Thomas Merton's The Way of Chuang Tzu, a selection of his favorite sayings he edited together from various translations. And a few nights ago I started David Hinton's full translation. (On deck after Hinton is James Legge, if the fire's still burning.)

The parable that has been on my mind most of late is that of the butcher who follows the Tao: he tells of good butchers who cut their meat and have to replace their knives every year. Then there are the poor butchers, who go through a knife a month; they hack and saw at the meat and make a mess of the whole event. But the Taoist butcher simply allows his knife to find its way, it follows the Tao, and the butcher has kept the same knife for nineteen years, still sharp as new.

I find in my writing, I have at times hacked and sawed, or just cut and slashed, no matter, at some point the "knife" dulls, and I need a new one. Then there is that rare writing that is no-writing, accomplished accidentally, in which the way is simply found, no energy is expended.

Ambition destroys that no-writing, compels me to a writing that I cannot accomplish, one that requires hacking and sawing, absent of grace, replete with struggle. It is a fight with the world, following my own (piss poor) way.

Recently a dear friend shared with me another Taoist parable about two fish: the first appears motionless, is contemplating a pebble in the creek bed, and so is straining with all their might against the current. The second fish exerts no effort at all, and so is carried about by the water, wherever the current takes it. "They're both following the Way."

And so, perhaps am I, and the correct pose is one I am incapable of (as I have mentioned previously), that of gratitude.

Detail, Mirage // 3.8.18

In his introduction to The Elements of Drawing, my copy of which, this morning, I spilled iced coffee all over, John Ruskin, writing about the instruction of the young artist, says, "I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at Nature that they may learn to draw."

I don't know why I'm reading The Elements of Drawing, except Louis Zukofsky's biographer Mark Scroggins keeps (kept?) a blog called Culture Industry or Kulture Industrie, in which he betrays a deep and wide obsession with the work of Ruskin, and as I like both Zukofsky and Scroggins, I presume I may also enjoy Ruskin.

I used to draw a lot as a child, various cartoons, pictures of men with swords, and whatever else I cared to. These days I really only draw sadsack self-portraits while I'm at work (see above), and have given up my childhood dreams of being a cartoonist, or comic book artist, or police sketch artist. I've also given up the firefighter dream; I volunteered at a fire department in high school for a little while and learned it wasn't for me.

These days, I just read and write, and sell books, and buy books, and eat chicken korma, and spill iced coffee, and chain smoke mentholated cigarettes, and try to figure out if what I'm doing is worth doing, if I'm writing because I am actually able to write well enough to someday be paid for the work, or if I have only the temperament, and not the ability, and I should learn a trade, or sell out to some startup or another.

I'm getting off topic. I don't have my commonplace book on me (thank God, it'd be covered in cold brew), but there's a Zukofsky quote from Prepositions that echoes Ruskin, that goes something like, "Writing is the detail, not the mirage, of seeing." Wait, I've googled the quote, it goes, "Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody." Which means, I assume, that writing fails when it attempts mimesis, and succeeds in explication of some inner or outer reality. No, I think LZ put it better than my sum-up.

I know not how to explicate any outer reality, I can neither draw nor write lovely description, but I feel like I've got an okay handle on detailing inner reality, though my own is fairly predictable, self-loathsome and unsure. The downside is that writing fiction becomes an exercise not in plot, but in putting my own thoughts into the minds of characters, dialogue is near-impossible, and my stories become the memoirs of young men very much like myself. Alas, alack.

No conclusions, but if you'd like to read a perfect short story, track down It was by Zukofsky, it is ever so lovely.

Afraid of the Dark // 2.24.18

At times I consider returning to school for a graduate degree, the most popular idea heretofore has been to pursue an MFA in creative writing, poetry or something. There are two major camps of opinion on the MFA, the first being that they are a great opportunity to get to know one's contemporaries, to make invaluable connections, and to get through ten years of crappy work in two or three years. The opposing camp holds that MFA programs are assembly lines for the homogenization of taste, they kill any chance of authentic work, and they are out-and-out scams.

So I'm conflicted. The other path would be to pursue an MA in some tangential interest, so that my path as a writer is not defined by the program, but they might inform each other. The options there are English or French Lit, or, I don't know, I don't have a lot of interests, maybe whatever Barry Ahearn teaches at Tulane, if I could also ask him about knowing Hugh Kenner.

Or I could go to seminary, I guess.

A great appeal of college is the experience I had with one of my professors, Alissa Wilkinson, with whom I'm pretty sure I took a class every semester at King's but one. Because I am generally a bored ass, I tended to do two things with all my college papers: attend to the assignment, and also attempt some other conceit, like my paper on Vonnegut in which I listed every member of my family and admitted my fear of the dark. She was kind enough to grade me on both of these counts, and several times I got back my work with her note attached, "I get what you're trying to do, but this is lazy."

So now in civilian life, I have been writing still, except without external assignment and without some professor required to read my work and tell me about it. Nor do I have any particular threat of danger if I do not produce work, except the emotional wringer I will put myself through (note: I put myself through it either way, actually).

I have some things I'm working on, I'd like to put together another chapbook this year, and I have an ongoing project of unknown scope or size, it is scattered through iPhone notes, notebooks, and files on my laptop. But all in all, the stakes seem low, and it seems I have no one at present I risk disappointing.

There is a Christian joke that goes something like, if the people in your life don't know you're a Christian, golly, don't tell them! The idea being that if it is not obvious, then it is not true. Application: perhaps if my writing were enough to prompt unsolicited comments and suggestions, I'd be on the right track, and no one getting that feedback genuinely has to worry about asking for it. But I do. I am unable to be satisfied in my knowledge of myself, it is abysmal. So, I don't know. I could go to seminary, I guess.