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A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

#Poppoetry: The Unsurprising Culture of Poetry in the U.S. -- Part III.2

This is the second half of Part III of the essay. The first half (with introductory comments) is here.

In Part II I give links to a small number of pages that are set up as support to the essay (including links to the poem as it stands on Verse Daily and the original post). Here they are again:

Here are the links to the other pages as posted on this site:

  • Part I. Introduction: That which Should be Assumed
  • Part II. Emotionality, Authority, and Morality
  • Part III. The Poem and the Replies: Structure and Ideation
  • Part IV. Summation, Conclusion, and the Inevitable J'accuse

The full essay is also on my Hatters Cabinet site, here.


#Poppoetry: The Unsurprising Culture
of Poetry in the U.S.

Part III. The Poem and the Replies: Structure and Ideation (2d Half)

"If you had bothered to think about the poem": it is not a passing phrase. It is establishing the poem within the idea of intellectuality -- a positive trait for a poem in any context. It is echoed in the next sentence: "rather than simply being a poem about death": there is a greater reading, a more subtle reading, a more profound reading than what I have seen myself. Which is to say from within the authority structures of the nomos of poetry, than what I am capable of seeing myself -- which is not merely a slur.[FN1] The statement is effort to establishing the quality of the poem, and is performed in the standard way: the Replies as a whole are just such performance: the poem’s quality is established in that an authority (the poet, who is also a professor of literature) is speaking the poem as quality, and the attacks upon that quality are dismissed through the diminishment of the authority and presence of the questioner. This is quality throughout any nomic culture: quality and importance exists wholly within the ascription of that character to a text by authorities: quality -- just as with meaning -- is performed. The text need only support through shallow reading that ascription. All that is needed after that is for that quality to be performed by someone else: which establishes the meaning as truth within the nomos. The Review of Books says a book is important; the readers accept the truth of the statement and reiterate it through their own words or wallets, and the book is, thus, important. “Spook House” is a smart poem. Its meaning is about “trauma and uncertainty.” All I needed to do is “think about the poem” and I would have seen it.[FN2]

[FN1] The granting of the ability to see the correct meaning points back to Part II: only a person of accepted authority has the ability to see the correct meaning. Everyone else accepts the meaning in a pedagogical disposition.
[FN] This is something you can watch happen at poetry readings.

Except, can the poem really sustain that reading? Or, is this poem simply about death? No, not even as I read it, even with its instabilities. For me, there is such structural importance placed upon that "war" line that the idea of war has to somehow couple with the continual presence of death, even if imperfectly -- thus my seeing the final scene as the stereotypical image of children who will in the near future become soldiers sent to war. I read "Spook House" as a poem that is mostly a scene whose whole purpose seems to be to present a stream of images of death, book-ended by a scene that contextualizes it as a flashback (itself a very common convention of contemporary poetry, and a cue for poetic quality), and which has a low-yield emotion bomb about war thrown in it, which gives it some form of topical resonance. For me, that is a fairly safe reading of the poem.

But the intended meaning of the poem is: "it is a poem about the trauma and uncertainty of entering adulthood."[FN1] The assertive stance and language is not to be missed. He is giving the world the meaning of the poem, yes. However, that act is not a reading of the poem but an assertion of meaning. By the conventions of the nomos, now that we have been given the meaning of the poem, we should then accept the meaning of the poem as given, needing only sufficient tie between the meaning and the text of the poem to justify its assertion. That this is in fact a nomic performance -- shallow writing and reading -- is demonstrated throughout the argument of defense of the poem in how Myers is himself blind to how the poem actually reads, and reads in the poem the meaning he has himself applied to it.[FN2]

[FN1] (The word “intended” is not there pejorative but descriptive.)
[FN2] This is not, in truth, so strange a thing. Every honest person would admit experiencing a someone saying to them “this doesn’t mean what you think it means” with texts they themselves wrote.

Which is again nothing peculiar within an established culture: that is how the nomos handles the writing and reading of texts. The text is written with the meaning already in existence: the poem does not create its own reading, and does not need to. The writing process revolves instead around some basic idea for the setting of the text: here, an adult is remembering about the first time he heard of Dante, and the poem describes the scene of that remembrance. The poem is then written out of and through contemporary conventionality: poetry as sentences broken into lines; stanzas that are defined by the sentences; grammar sufficient to the enterprise without being too difficult (even if not quite successful); some emotional pop; conventional flashback from within an I-narrative; a touch of allusion to create intellectuality; finally, enough and sufficient phrasing for the intended meaning.

Everything else is irrelevant.

The concern with the ideas generated by the text itself sits back seat to the appeals to conventionality. Blatant contradictions to intent -- as will be seen with the Ferris wheel lines -- is simply bypassed. Even unintentional ideas or clumsiness created by poor grammar (things that would never pass in prose) is overlooked for the shallowness of the reading/writing process: it is "postmodern poetics," ergo it is justified. It is all simply not of concern. Successful writing of a nomic poem needs only the successful creation of enough hooks upon which to drape the meaning. Thus the success that can be found in the use of an emotion bomb: one very large hook that can sustain a meaning intended for a poem, a poem that in every other way has absolutely no relationship therewith:

I remember
a day walking in the park
where she was
counting the trees
and laughing at
kids playing on the
But she is dead now.

(In case you were wondering, I just made that up. It is quite conventional, actually.) A culture of shallow writing which both prompts and requires shallow reading -- lest the culture be revealed for what it is; a culture of shallow reading that expects and needs shallow writing -- lest it be revealed for what it is: that is a nomos.

It is actually not at all surprising or unexpected when a nomic poet claims a meaning for a poem that is not generated or sustained by the poem. It is seen in print all the time, especially with political/topical poetry. The fact that the far majority of "Spook House" is a continuous flow of images of physical and spiritual death and finality is irrelevant to Myers's own reading: obviously -- if only I knew enough about poetry to be able to read and critique it -- it is about trauma.

It is important to note the word there is irrelevant. It is false to say a nomically grounded poet gets the poetry wrong in their writing. It is not a matter of error, it is a matter of what can be ignored and what is meant to be seen. As said, this feeds into the statements in the Replies that the ideas of unity and structure running within the post are narrow and wooden: because if they were valid, they would exclude the reading that is applied to the text. How can the text not be about death if there is so much death in the poem? How can the text not be about war even though there is such strong emphasis and direction placed on the war line? The answer is: the poem is not so because postmodern poetics. The phrasing is not in error: the justification ultimately lies in the appeal to the authority, not the internal, argumentative validity of that authority.[FN]

[FN] A rather large body of contemporary poetry has found a rather simple solution to this problem of unintentional imagery: write poems that are so ideationally thin there is nothing with which to generate anything more than surface ideas to begin with. The attached -- though still wholly unjustified -- meanings then sit rather comfortably upon their texts.


Again: "If you had bothered to think about the poem for a moment, it might have occurred to you that [. . .] it is a poem about the trauma and uncertainty of entering adulthood." In honesty, that never would have occurred to me. Though, after Myers's explanation, I can see the hooks he is using to justify the meaning.

because death is obviously only part of what is meant by the "dark [curve]" in my poem. The image is clearly one of uncertainty. Think of Dante descending into Hell. [. . .H]e will ascend again into Purgatory and eventually Paradise, but Dante the pilgrim is not so sure.

"Clearly" -- still, I will explain it.[FN] The key to the poem as Myers defines it is in the last stanza, back at the desk of the adult narrator. There, it is not the Inferno that is on the desk but the whole of "a copy / of La Commedia" -- with two more on the shelf. From the presence of the whole of the trilogy comes the idea of passage through (and up) -- after all, the journey of the character of Dante does not end at the ninth circle of Hell. Once the meaning of "passage" exists in the poem, we can redefine the closing moment in the carnival ride not as an image of death but as an image of passage, even though there is nothing in the scene that gives energy to the idea of an exit from the coming darkness. Once that ride is identified as "passage through" (even though that identification is external to the poem itself), the darkness in the ride can move away from the by-then-firmly-established idea of death to that of uncertainty. Finally, now that you have the idea of uncertainty embedded in the darkness, you can recast the entire poem, and find instead of endless death's heads the "emblems of uncertainty" that Myers lists in the Reply: the naked woman, the rebel flag, the suicide, the drought, the war.

[FN] This is the path I find makes the most sense.

Rebel flag? Ok, that one's paper thin. But, that is probably the least of the problems with the trauma and uncertainty reading. For if you read the poem aesthetically, if you read it not to look for justifications of the applied meaning but to see what ideas are actually generated by the text, the idea of "the trauma and uncertainty of entering adulthood" is found to be wholly rejected by the poem itself.

  1. Outside of what we are supposed to read from the presence of the phrase "La Commedia," nowhere else in the poem is there the idea of "passage through." Indeed, when Dante first appears in the poem, he is immediately linked not to the whole of La Commedia, but to the Inferno specifically -- which is followed by the barrage of death.
  2. In fact, the first six stanzas of the poem speak overwhelmingly against the notion of "a passage through." First there is the general context of death -- which is not at all the same thing as a guided tour of Hell. Then there is the more specific moment of suicide. Beyond that, there is the Ferris wheel, which reminded the boy
    of a queen I saw in a movie once, raising
    her head to meet the eye
    of the executioner.
    It is an image of a ride (a ride, just like the spook house ride) that goes up -- which, yes, is the orientation of La Commedia once it leaves Hell -- but then goes down back to the finality of death. Could you have a more explicit statement of the denial of "passage through"? Is there after that idea any reason to think that the spook house ride at the end of the poem will not also turn down toward and end in death?
  3. Indeed, there is no effort to instill the idea of "passage through" in any other of the elements of the poem. As said, it is not inherently in the final scene. The presence of some kind of light, or shadow play, something that pointed to what lay beyond the dark would give reason to reach forward and make it a passage through. Instead, there is only a turn into darkness, which, within the context of the poem, can almost only be read as symbolic death. One would think any good reader would find the intentional absence of “passage through” – in moments where it could exist – as important to the reading of the poem.
  4. While I am not a scholar of the work, never in all my years have I ever heard The Divine Comedy talked about in the nature of a bildungsroman. So it should not be that strange that "passage to adulthood" is not exactly brought to mind by the presence of either the Inferno one or the La Commedia as a whole.
  5. The age of the boy is but of ten years. Change the age to fifteen and the nude woman, the suicide, and the war would come into greater resonance. But ten? Explicitly stating the age as ten is explicitly stating the age is not fifteen -- or fourteen, or sixteen. That is, it is explicitly stating the boy is not in the midst of physical, mental, and emotional change. By specifically stating "ten" -- which is still in grammar school -- the poem is defining the moment of remembrance as before those changes; even, within a point of naïve ignorance of such changes. Because the boy is only ten, the sexuality of the nude woman is mostly removed. And in that the woman is coupled with a rebel flag, the mirror idea reads to me -- and this is how I originally read it -- at most as a statement about the trite banality of the fairgrounds. As such, the woman and flag mirrors move away from "passage to adulthood" and become yet another moment of symbolic death.
  6. Really, there is not even any trauma in the poem. Trauma occurs on the far side of an event. Every image in this poem is before any event. Of the two that explicitly move to the far side, the first, the Ferris wheel, ends in and at death, and the second, the framing scene at the desk, speaks nothing of trauma whatsoever. The boy is not given a single adjective by which to call him nervous. Indeed, considering the source of his want to ride the Ferris wheel, I would say he was quite the opposite of nervous.
  7. Likewise, is there even any uncertainty? It is pretty much all death. There's no equivocation in the argument. (At most, I can find only the irregular "but" leading off the war line.)
  8. This is a framed poem: it is flashback. The part that is the boy at the fair is narrated by the adult. Which is to say it is the adult that is choosing the words, which gives the dwelling on death all the more emphasis. The fact that the narrator speaks sixteen reference of death, and that the narrator has decided not to instill the remembrance with the ideas of "passage through" or trauma or uncertainty is emphatic statement and guidance as to the character and reading of the story. The scene is being interpreted by the narrator himself: and as a reader we should listen.

All and all, evidence and proof beyond enough that the idea of "the trauma and uncertainty of entering adulthood" is an wholly applied meaning to the poem. That Myers can yet assert such a meaning, that he is blinded enough to the degree of death in his own poem that he does not see the death's heads on every third line, that he does not see that the Ferris wheel lines wholly contradict his own intended meaning, and that his defense of the poem -- and the assault on my literary acumen -- is predicated and evidenced through a meaning that is rejected by the poem is astounding demonstration of how Myers reads the poem -- of how Myers reads the poem -- and thus of how Myers wrote the poem and how Myers anticipates how his readers will read the poem.

But we must remove these ideas from the specificity of Myers, because the aim of this essay here is not to be found in this single example, but in that it demonstrates the nomos -- and the functioning there of -- of contemporary poetry, within which Myers finds the conventions, valuations, and meanings of poetry. This is a good poem -- why? Because it has been published; because it has been read publically (I am sure to approval); because it can be spoken of by a meaning that performs wonderfully the nomos of the culture of poetry and fits well within the generic expectations of what "good poetry" is all about. It has a meaning that can be appropriately applied to the text; it carries one or more of the conventional profound thoughts of literature; it can be read without challenge or offense to the nomos as a whole. It is a good poem.

It should be noted that that the meaning of the poem is not generated by the poem itself -- not through any honest reading of it -- does not mean the applied meaning is an incorrect meaning, not from the nomic standpoint. An incorrect meaning is the wrong meaning: which is to say that (1) the poem does have a nomic meaning, and (2) what is offered is also a nomic meaning, only (3) it is not the right one. An incorrect meaning is a meaning that lacks grounding in authority; but it is still a meaning. And, thus, how there can be contestations of meaning within the nomic, which are really contestations over authorities. The "trauma" meaning is the correct meaning within the nomos, because it is the authorized meaning. And here we return to that word irrelevant: unity, structure, emphasis, the ever-presence of death within the poem, the weak use of the Inferno, are irrelevant to the making/assigning of meaning and to the perceived (received) quality of the poem.

All these issues I raise with the poem -- the issues of ideation, structure, and even grammar, syntax, and semantics -- are taken out of the reading of the poem by the use of convention, conventionality understood and expected (if not demanded) on the part of readership, and understood and provided (if not expected) on the part of writership.

Take for but one example the flashback structure, a common convention in pop poetry. The flashback in "Spook House," as it is generally used, establishes the structure of "that was then, this is now." And, indeed, a flashback structure can be used aesthetically to create just such a ideational structure within the poem. The key words there, however, are can and create. In an aesthetic poem, where the poem generates its own self, the flashback structure is put to use within the poem: it is a structure upon which the idea of "that was then, this is now" can be developed. But it need not be so, and in pop poetry it rarely is so. Rather, the structure is there used as a convention: by putting the poem in the recognizable and accepted flashback structure, the idea of "that was then, this is now" is grafted on the poem through appeal to poetic convention. The poem itself does not have to do any of the ideational work. There need not be, in the poem, any contrast established ideationally between the "that" and the "this." Which is the case in "Spook House." Here are all the lines that can be said to refer to the "present tense" of the adult (the numbers are the line numbers):

(1) The first I heard of Dante
(2) was at the county fair when I was ten,
(3) Dante's Inferno slashed in red on a black [trailer, etc.]
(41) Years later, there is a copy
(42) of La Commedia on my desk
(43) while I write this, and two
(44) more editions on the shelf,
(45) But I'm thinking of how we entered
(46) The Inferno two at a time [etc.] [FN]

What is being presented within the poem? What ideas are being generated within the poem? More importantly, as we are looking at the use of the appeal to convention to generate ideas, what ideas are not being generated within the poem?

[FN] Of course, there is also the disputed line:
(35) But there wasn't a war then.
In that the poem is framed within a flashback, it is a quite natural reading that "then" in that line refers to the time of the present tense. But it can also be read as a later moment of flashback. Either way, the "then," in conjunction with the flashback structure, gives even more structural importance to that war line.

Primarily, there is no real contrast created between the "then" and the "now." In fact, the "now" is wholly empty of ideation: it is an empty scene. There is nothing within the scene to establish what is the nature of the moment. Myers's reading of "Spook House" hinges on the idea of the presence of La Commedia in the present moment generates the "passage through" idea. There are two problems with that dependency, however. Even if we accept the idea that La Commedia could present the idea of "passage through," it exists within the poem with but the barest presence, especially in that

  1. No one would naturally link the Dante of La Commedia to a ten year old boy (never mind to the "trauma and uncertainty" of oncoming adulthood). Within the context of the total poem -- which includes the flashback scene -- there is little (if anything) to prompt the idea of "passage through" out of the presence of La Commedia.
  2. The opening of the the moment text of the poem preceding the mention of La Commedia is overwhelmingly about death and finality, which makes the all but tangential idea of "passage through" very weak in comparison. If the poem was meant to be a "then = bad" "now = good" poem (or about "passage through"), one would think the positive would merit some strength
  3. After the scene in the present moment, the poem returns to flashback in a scene that again gives no energy to the idea of "passage through." Indeed in that the poem specifically does not give energy to that idea when the opportunity for it is so readily apparent (at the turn in the ride), there is every reason to read the final scene as overtly eliminating any concept of "passage through."

In fact, it is quite easy to read the poem wholly against the idea of "passage through": all you need to is imagine that outside the window of the writer at his present-day desk is a world that has, for the writer, not yet escaped hell: there is still drought, there is still suicide and death, and there is now also war (again that line comes into importance). Then, even if you do read La Commedia as idea of "passage through," it is an idea that exists, within the context of the adult at his desk, only as an unrealized possibility. There never was any passage through for the writer; the flashback is indeed description of a world of death -- a world which still exists. Indeed, in this reading that final scene takes on new relevance, one merited both by its position within the as the final, culminating scene ("but I'm thinking of"), and by its refusal to offer any ideation of "passage through": that is, the final scene is not at all a moment of "trauma and uncertainty," but a moment of resignation and absolute certainty. The boy is in the Inferno, and the boy will never escape it. (And there the Ferris wheel scene also takes on actual purpose and strength.)

There is nothing of strength in the poem to refute the idea that in the "that was then, this is now" structure suggested by the use of flashback there is no difference between the "then" and the "now." Indeed, by what was decsribed above, there is plenty in the poem to reinforce it. So how then does the poem carry the "passage through" idea of "then = bad" and "now = good"? By appeal to a poetic convention: when a flashback occurs in a poem, the reader is supposed to read into the poem the idea of "that was then, this is now," and then should ideationally structure the poem into an opposing of the "then" and the "now."

None of which is inherent to the poem. All of which exists within the genre and conventions of pop poetry -- and is quite frequently seen. Thus, the shallow writing of pop poetry, and the shallow reading of pop poetry: you do not create ideas, you use conventions; you do not read ideas out of the poem, you look for and apply the appealed to conventions.

Such is the nature of the nomic, and of the contemporary culture of poetry. And, as is my point-which-is-not-a-point, none of this should be surprising. Indeed, nor should it be surprising that, within the culture of pop poetry, there is a well established and at times elegantly performed[FN] defense of contemporary poetry that goes you are not supposed to read it that closely: a justification for shallowness in both reading and writing that permits positive valuation of a great mass of contemporary poetry despite the poetics of previous poets, critics, and theorists, who would and did insist that yes, you are supposed to read it that closely: that is the whole nature, purpose, and joy of poetry.

[FN] Which is to say a defense for shallowness that does not at all appear like a defense for shallowness.

Here I turn to give time to the aesthetic modality of reading, which is not about meaning, but about validity. I read a poem. I develop a reading of the poem, an experience of the poem, paying attention to structure, text, sound, reference, etc. I am satisfied with that reading of the poem. A second person reads the same poem. They generate their reading of the poem -- and it is different, substantially, we will say, from my reading. Is my reading, or the other person's reading incorrect? No. Because they are both the individual experience of the poem. But, now we compare our readings, and (assuming open-minded engagement) explore the strengths and weaknesses of each reading, exchange information, trace out structure and ideation. Is this then now searching for the correct meaning? No. It is re-reading. Meaning is of course part of the reading of the poem, for every person is both of a nomic and an aesthetic character, and as every text must function in some part in both the nomic and aesthetic modalities. However, aesthetic "meaning" is not fixed meaning, but ideation. Yes, the nomic aspect of the poem is nomic meaning, but it is not all defining, and it will always only be a part of the experience of the poem. For in the aesthetic, it is the experience that is the point -- thus its inherent relation with individuality.

But back to the exchange of readings and ideas and information: the mutual re-reading of the poem. What is happening in the comparison is not about correctness of one reading as opposed to another, but about the validity of a reading: can I justify my reading of the text by the text. If I can, then my re-reading is valid to me -- even if it is not valid to the other person. After all, again, we are individuals, with different lives, different experiences, different knowledges, different sophistications. We are going to read -- if we are really reading -- differently. So, through the exchange of experiences we modify our own reading and experience the poem now in a new way, more valid each to ourselves -- even if we both walk away from the poem still with somewhat different experiences of the poem.[FN]

[FN] Which does not create the situation of infinite meaning to any poem. Generally, if a person with more knowledge as to the details of the poem will be offering information absent to a person of less knowledge. Generally, a person of higher sophistication will be offering a more sophisticated reading to a person of less sophistication, and generally, that latter person’s sophistication will increase in the exchange. Which does not in turn mean that over time readings will coalesce into a “meaning”: there will still always be the element of individuality. But, there is also the limits of the poem: a simple poem will not offer as much to re-read as a larger, more intricate poem.

It is an event, a view of literature, which wholly undermines a nomic culture of poetry. For within that culture, not only is meaning applied externally and conventionally to poems, the truth of meaning is applied to poems, and also the truth of value. Critique can exist within the culture of poetry only insofar as it does not upset that culture, only insofar as it exhibits good taste. Myers's critique of Mary Oliver's book, which he brings up in Reply 5 as another tag of authority, stays very solidly and safely within the bounds of good taste. Of course, my own approach to Myers's poem does not quite do such -- as Myers does point out in Reply 4:

and I would still urge you not to attempt public discussion beyond your capabilities, as to do so is unethical and damaging.

Unethical? That is by far the most unexpected word within all five Replies. Unethical? Since when do you need a license to talk about poetry? The word reveals just how embedded Myers's replies are within a social nomos. For him the idea of an average joe daring to talk about poetry out of their own being -- daring to read poetry from their own experience and knowledge -- is unethical: a violation of the order of things; a violation of social caste and definition. The meaning of poetry, the reading of poetry, is the domain of those who know what they are doing: and only then, are the results authoritative. It is moments like this that reaffirm that the total of these replies are not emotional outbursts but are performances of a cultural world-view. The severity of it does not speak to the nature of the poetic nomos being revealed here, but the degree of investment on the part of the poet. Speaking about poetry in a public forum without formal qualification reaches for Myers the level an unethical act, a supreme violation of good taste: someone had the audacity to read his poem on their own, without formal training and outside the status that one gains from acceptance within the culture of poetry, and dared to speak about the poem outside the accepted social and moral parameters of the culture of poetry.

I hyperbolize my language a touch to try to make evident the degree that a nomic world-view functions to repress and eliminate the validity of the individual's experience with poetry. The only time speaking such experience is acceptable is if the person accepts the status of untrained, of unknowledged, and of willingness to be corrected. (And I cannot but think here of the critiques of MFA culture creating an industry based upon the mimicry of mentors, which is nothing if not a pedagogical formalization of good taste and authority.) In every act -- be it the writing, the reading, the speaking about -- the nomic culture will defend itself. To speak outside that culture -- to reject the meanings intended by the authors, to critique beyond one's permitted bounds or beyond the culture defending ethics of good taste, is not just an affront but a threat to the nomos. And as such, a threat and an affront to the world view of those persons participatory in that nomos: all the more for each to the degree that they are invested in the social meaning provided by that nomos.

Within the affront to good taste there lies some justification to the violence and degree of insult within the Replies as a whole, as seen in those nearly-as-unexpected moments in Reply 3:

As it stands, don't spit on me and act indignant when I respond in kind. [. . .] I suspect you failed to consider that there might be a real person on the other end of the poem you decided to unjustly trash. You thought you could just spew your nonsense into the blogosphere and not get called out on it. You've simply failed to think humanely and responsibly about what you are doing.

It is understatement to say that I find it beyond bizarre that a supposedly professional author -- a published PhD -- is pulling out the "consider the feelings of the author" card. Yes, there is always in ego element in publishing; but if you can't take the heat, why are you doing it? (And I do not mean that in any derogatory manner. I mean it from a point of mental health: do not do it if it is not good for you. I speak this from my own experience.) Beyond that, it is only when there is a world-view challenged that you see such a response anchored in ideas like "unethical" and "humanely and responsibly" -- especially when the "unethical" person is perceived as being a nobody with a soap box, generally the easiest of people to ignore. The fact that he could not so ignore me -- to the tune of five independent Replies -- speaks loudly to that the original post was not, to him, merely a nobody on a soapbox. Something needed to be done.

[FN] I am not here speaking of writing poetry, I am speaking of publishing that poetry.

And this is performance. And there was an audience. And considering I doubt that Myers spends time reading blogs like mine, I am sure the post about his poem was brought to his attention by one of his students. I am equally sure the performance here was more for them (in instruction) and himself (in affirmation) than it was for me. Which is an important aspect of the nomos: it serves itself and the people who hold to it. Others are of no concern (so long as they can be ostracized). The performance here was moral demonstration for the watching students: to speak out against the status is unethical, inhumane, and irresponsible. To not accept the status quo is likewise. To be a critic is to be an acceptable critic.


Step back a second, so that I may speak in the rhetoric of the blog, which I attempt to always aim toward the writing of poetry.[FN]

[FN] While there is much theory about the aesthetic, and some criticism that comes out of the aesthetic, there is very little written from the point of the writing -- and of developing sophistication -- in the aesthetic mode of being.

One of the repeated points of argument as to the content of the poem -- already touched on above -- is the use of the Inferno within the poem. This was the source of what was originally perceived as an ad hominem attack in the first Reply. The intended point in the post was that the allusion to the Inferno/Commedia in the poem has no real depth. There is nothing in the poem, really, that interacts with the ideas within Dante's work. Within the first six stanzas of the poem, the Inferno is reduced to a simple symbol of death, just as with all the other symbols. The immediate coupling with a fair ride trivializes its presence, turns it into kitsch. It is only the opening line of "first time I heard of Dante" that keeps the book in any way in the forefront. Yet, it is but "Dante" we read, and immediately after "Inferno," and not until the end does La Commedia appear. So even from the start there is some misdirection as to the desired importance of the complete trilogy. Outside intended reading, the allusion dies at the author and title; and, in the end, there is nothing in this poem that could not have been written by someone whose entire extent of knowledge on Dante came from speed reading the introduction to a Wikipedia entry. And even that is more than is needed.

Which makes the turn here to considerations of writing somewhat interesting. For the simplest demonstration -- and perhaps the most fruitful demonstration -- as to the shallowness of the poem, but more importantly and instructively as to the failures of ideational development and coherency within the poem, lies within the use of the Inferno and the fact that the poem rises an order of magnitude in strength and ideational energies if you but substitute Heart of Darkness. The book maintains the ideational association with death, but also wholly establishes the idea of passage, and even of trauma and uncertainty. All three ideas would have been introduced by the third line. What an obvious choice! What a better choice!

Indeed, what is astounding with this poem as concerns the intended meaning is just how many explicit decisions in the poem's writing work against the intended meaning: by not choosing something in the writing of the poem that works for the intended meaning, the poem will then through that choice speak against it. If you choose a person whose age is generally perceived as prior to puberty, then you are explicitly not choosing puberty. If you choose an idea of a Ferris wheel whose descent is linked to death, then you are explicitly not choosing an idea about "passage through." If you choose not to give some idea of something lying beyond the darkness around the curve of the ride, then you are explicitly not choosing "passage through." If you choose a book that is not about passage into adulthood -- even if it can be twisted into linking to it -- then you are explicitly not choosing passage into adulthood. If you choose language that is not artistic or poetic, but actually rather ordinary (if not bad) prose, then you are explicitly not choosing poetics. If you do not choose to craft lines, then you are explicitly not choosing poetic lines and breaks.

It is unavoidable: a poem does create its own ideational energies out of the words chosen and their arrangement. Creative writing is about generating, out of the medium of language, those creative energies. In toto, if you choose language that does not generate such energies, or if you choose language that does not generate energies to the ends you wish, then you are explicitly not choosing to generate your hoped for poem. Which is to say, in the more abstract, you are not choosing sophistication in your creative writing.


Next: "IV. Summation, Conclusion, and the Inevitable J'accuse"


  1. I think the argument of these posts can be boiled down as follows.

    About the poem:

    "I read 'Spook House' as a poem that is mostly a scene whose whole purpose seems to be to present a stream of images of death, book-ended by a scene that contextualizes it as a flashback (itself a very common convention of contemporary poetry, and a cue for poetic quality), and which has a low-yield emotion bomb about war thrown in it, which gives it some form of topical resonance."

    About the poet:

    "Speaking about poetry in a public forum without formal qualification reaches for Myers the level an _unethical act_, a supreme violation of good taste: someone had the audacity to read his poem on their own, without formal training and outside the status that one gains from acceptance within the culture of poetry, and dared to speak about the poem outside the accepted social and moral parameters of the culture of poetry."

    These seem like fair characterizations, though, to the extent that what is said can be applied more broadly, I would like to see the themes developed in something with no reference to Myers and his poem.

    1. In most every way, this essay is long-form, formal statement of the project of this blog. Most of what I have done here -- and will continue to do -- is demonstration of these ideas. Though, from the angle of the writing of poetry, rather than the critiquing of it