Thursday, December 25, 2008


All things ceased; I went out from myself

So, for the past year and a half, at least, I have been, I think, navigating the dark night of the soul--at least, so far as anyone who has committed themselves to an honest, secular approach to the complex of questions that arise around the assertion of an integral self, much less soul, can be said to experience such things. Given the recent celebration of the completion of my fortieth year in this particular bag of flesh, it seems probable, in this age of clinical definition and neurochemical solutions, that I might seem less an anachronism were I to refer to the same as a midlife crisis, but what little poetic lint I have managed to accrue over those forty years just finds it more pleasant to attach those feelings to the metaphor of night. I can say this: for multiple reasons, some alluded to on this blog, and others I've yet to find adequate means to express (or, in some cases, motivation, really, to do so...), I've found more than adequate cause for reassessment. I seem to be clinging to the conviction that the capacity for reflection is one of humankind's more valuable traits, in spite of enormous pressure from just about every form of media at our disposal to think otherwise. Regrets? Perhaps that's not the right word. But there have been those few moments in the last couple of years when I might have caught a glimpse of the horrifying and paralyzing burden Nietzsche perceived in the notion of "ewige Wiederkunft" :

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.'

This quote was once offered to me, by one Chris Holderman, as a sort of primary directive...that one should lead one's life in such a fashion as to be able to gladly face that demon, and be joyous at the thought of this life...every minute of it...being your eternity. As moral directives go, it makes a lot more sense to me than the first five books of the Bible. That said, it's not an easy directive to live up to, especially during those long, dark nights. As the facts stand, and without hashing through a bunch of events in my personal life that essentially boil down to an unpleasant gruel of only half-deserved resentments, circumstances have been such that of late I have felt, not so much silenced, as irrelevant. My skills in most areas are middling, and despite overly confident assertions--from all human disciplines, really--of the inherent value of every precious subjective on the face of the planet (all 6,749,392,469 (and counting) of them...), I'm not yet convinced that this particular subjective is really going to contribute all that much by throwing its bucketful into the ocean that is humanity. Not that that's stopped me before, but the point is, for whatever reason, and however well-or-ill founded that reason may be, there's some part of me that can't quite accept the rather thin justification of "Well, you aren't hurting anything, and everyone else is doing it, and if you don't, you won't be heard at all." No, the point was, and still is, I think, to somehow improve something, and if that "dark night of the soul" entails profound doubt, then perhaps the focus of that doubt is my ability--or lack thereof--to do so. So far, about the best I've come up with is that doing so makes me a--dare we say better?--person than not doing so, and thus improves, incrementally, the quality of the world as a whole.

In truth, this is a set of doubts that have always been with me, especially when considering the value of writing. The same sort of crisis occurred when I left university--that cocoon where most students are regularly aided and abetted in their attempts to convince themselves and others that their efforts are somehow much more central than they actually are--to find myself employing both my analytical and creative skills (neither of which, by the standard measures used within the university context, were substandard) in a childcare center. It wasn't that the skills weren't relevant to the work at hand--in all honesty, I can think of few fields where they are more relevant--it was just that they weren't about to be recognized, and I knew that. And I fell silent. For years. I worked through that, and I grew because of it, but I can't say it wasn't painful. The next time I felt that monstrous silence creeping up on me--this time due to a political atmosphere I truly believed to be poisonous--I managed to plow on, due largely to my decision to take refuge in the comedic--to the point that the comedic became almost a form of religion. After all, if you can get a room full of people to laugh, surely you've lessened the suffering in the world by some measure. It's possible that the fact that it was almost a religion is precisely what led to that strategy's failure...or failure, at least, in regards to what I felt I wanted from the words. Whatever the reason, and in spite of several abortive attempts to wrestle my way back to that space I generally refer to as poetry by taking recourse to the strategy of emphasizing the comedy inherent in all human efforts, the strategy hasn't proven effective during this last bout with the demons. Instead, it's been necessary to enter a prolonged silence, the better, I suppose, to figure out just what it is I want from words.

This is, in part, an apology, and in part, an explanation, I suppose, especially to all those who have supported me, in any number of capacities, in the pursuit of this particular fool's errand, but it's also a prelude to a recent event that I found...not compelling...but interesting in its own small way. As most of the people who are likely to read this blog know, I spent five years co-editing an online literary mag, which entailed putting together one interview and one editorial (usually very freewheeling in style) every 3 months. The archives are on the sidebar...given the thesis I'm working with here, there's probably no particularly compelling reason to link to these works in this post. During that five years, and with the help of this blog and any number of forum postings, I made myself enough of a nuisance to get top billing for my name on the standard Google search. I also--and this is important--got my name included on Ron Silliman's blog. Only as one name in the lengthy list that is his blogroll, one that I can imagine a younger and more optimistic Silliman expected to be able to maintain and thus create a definitive resource of working poets the world over, but...enough notice from that quarter to actually be included in that long list. Personally, I highly suspect that if that blogroll were regularly maintained, the last year and a half would have found this blog removed. Fortunately for me, the list is cumbersome, so, although I've yet to make it into one of Silliman's postings--and at this point in my life, suspect myself of being sufficiently unprolific, uninspiring and at odds with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry in general and Silliman's "School of Quietude" thesis in particular to never make one of those posts--this blog remains there, in spite of a very lengthy silence and only peripheral relevance to anything Silliman is doing, not unlike a distended tick hanging from the testicles of the cur that is contemporary poetry.

Believe me, the snarls are all for myself...I've plenty of respect for Silliman's undertaking, even where I find myself disagreeing, and it's one of the resources I regularly cite to any person who somehow, through my activities, takes interest in the state of contemporary poetry long enough for me to burden them with a url or two. But for all that, being on that blogroll rather seemed an affirmation of precisely that thesis I was advancing when, as a young participant of off-off-Green Mill poetry slams I penned the no doubt monumental lines I am bent / under the weight / of my ancestry, / & I cannot make myself be heard / through this sea of flesh. / I am drowning in it. Angst, sure, but perhaps in the resilience of my age at that time, there was a certain glory, a certain trickster euphoria that came from smashing monuments and flinging open the gates to the great unwashed, even if it was only verbally. There was a small part of me that rather exalted in the process of anonymity, to the point that, to my mind, there was no greater work of art than the one that went unsigned. Amongst my greatest wishes were that they would never find out who wrote Primary Colors, that Thomas Pynchon would be buried in an unmarked grave in an unknown location, and that somewhere in the Bahamas, after having made some astute investments with his initial capital,D. B. Cooper is living a quiet life with no concern for current events. Of those three scenarios, at present, the one that is most likely is also the one that is most blatantly criminal.

That is, in large part, why I found the Issue 1 hoax interesting. An incredible project, really, if you're impressed by big numbers: 3,785 pages of previously unpublished poetry, featuring 3,164 poets. Most contemporary. Some a little more familiar. Some very dead. Silliman made the cut. So did Yoko Ono. So did William Shakespeare. So did a few of the poets from the pages of that lit mag I helped edit. did yours truly. Which was odd...because even given the sheer heft of the volume--almost a guarantee that an anthology, especially of contemporary poetry, is going to be crap--I couldn't quite see myself sharing pages with some of the names on the list of contributors. Moreover, I couldn't remember submitting...which, for me, is odd, as I've submitted about four times, to anything, in the last year and a half, although to be perfectly fair, five days after Issue 1 came out, a submission that I had wholly forgotten I'd made was published. But in this case, there was a simple reason I couldn't remember submitting. I hadn't. Nor, apparently, had anyone else--though a sizeable number of the other contributors noticed their inclusion long before I did. Silliman noticed, and called the anthology "an act of anarcho-flarf vandalism". Others were similarly outraged. Others thought it clever. Others wondered what they should think/feel. The folks at forgodot issued a "polite clarification", and, in an incredibly timely reminder of just how fast word spreads these days, by early December, pretty much everyone had their say on the matter. Short perhaps one or two bloggers who had fallen off the face of the earth and were refusing to check their e-mail with any real consistency.

For me...reactions. First, I was incredibly surprised to be in the anthology at all, even if it was a hoax. Then, I was bemused by the fact that five years of hard work on an online zine had netted both the zine I worked for and myself precisely zero mentions on any page at the Poetry Foundation or on Silliman's blog, but one online hoax found us mentioned on both. There's something troubling about that fact, because, while I'm sure it took some time to put together the algorithm that generated the poems in issue one, not to mention grabbing all those names, cutting and pasting them to the various poems, and formatting it for .pdf, some quiet part of me wants to believe that the interviews and the editorials and the countless e-mails I sent out to the poets and essayists we both accepted and rejected were all considerably more aligned to what many would like to believe poetry can still be. Mind you, I was at no point in this process pissed off with the people who had put this massive display of reverse plagiarism together--in a way, I was pleased to have gained a poem, even if it didn't sound like me (russet? rondeau? I don't think so...). I even read it at one of the local open mics--why not? It's mine, apparently. I can say, however, that it was not as warmly received as that of Fulson, a teenage acquaintance of mine, in his incredibly touching paean to the products of his excretory functions. You can take that assessment for whatever it's worth.

After my initial reaction, other issues rose up to the surface. For example, had my name been attached in similar fashion to hate speech, I probably wouldn't have had so tepid a reaction. So what does that say about the poetry in Issue 1? To me, it says that if there is artistry at work here, it's not at the level of the individual poem--it's both before and after that. If it lies anywhere, it lies first at the level of the algorithm itself...let's face it, folks, it's not a bad bet that more than half of the general population could be presented with this work and not identify it as having been written by a computer, and it's still pretty safe to bet that many of them wouldn't be able to distinguish this work from that of a lot of contemporary poets. Fair enough to argue that this is not due to any failing on the part of contemporary poets, but the fact is, most of those people who couldn't distinguish this from human generated poetry probably have a job to get to, and don't really have time to obsess over Ted Berrigan's Sonnets, no matter how good they are. That's first. If a computer program is capable of replacing you in the eyes of the general public, then, whether you view the development negatively or positively, whether you think the fault/credit lies with either the poets or the audience, something in our aesthetic sense has shifted, fundamentally. It suggests either a seriously good computer program, or a serious disconnection between a lot of poets and a lot of readers.

The Issue 1 project can also be understood as art on the level of the anthology as a whole. It's true--individual poets reacted to "their" poems, so on that sense, the poems got assessed on that level, but in an extremely unsystematic way. I'm not academic enough to slog through 3,785 pages of computer generated poetry in search of some guiding aesthetic principle on the level of the individual poems, and I certainly wouldn't wish that on anyone else (okay...I wouldn't wish it on anyone except for any of the members of the administration of the outgoing United States executive branch of government...), but the point remains: the reaction thus far has been, by and large, driven not by the individual poems--which are, from what I've seen so far, bland--rather, they're driven by the idea of the anthology. Your name, along with 3,163 other poets, bloggers, and writers, is now attached, however whimsically, to a set of words you didn't write. Nothing was stolen from any of you--something was attributed to you. That's not a benign act, by any means, although without further value being given to the act, it could be either positive or negative in effect. Your spouse's friend can tell your spouse that you spend those Saturday afternoons you insist on having to yourself a) at the local soup kitchen, or b) with the lover you've never mentioned, and both assertions could be patently false, but if your spouse believes it, one of those assertions is much more likely to get you divorced than the other one is. The question is, what's really at stake with Issue 1's assertion that you wrote these words? How believable is that assertion, and how likely is that assertion to damage your good standing in the world of poetry? Given the paper thin facade this hoax came wrapped in, the answer to the first part of that question seems to be a pretty solid "not very," and I guess the second part of the question depends largely on just how good your standing is. There are those who have invested so much in this particular brand of illusion-making that, by all appearances, it matters barely less than, say, nuclear security in Georgia. Then again, there are others to whom it matters not one whit.

I'm interested in this project, first, because I'm interested in hoaxes generally--after all, if the greatest work of art goes unsigned, entirely divorced from the individual ego, then an undiscovered hoax would be prime material--and second, because it raises some interesting questions in its presentation. To be honest, though, the most compelling part of the whole project, for me was that title page, with all those microprinted names. Make no mistake--a fair few of those names are attached to poets who are writing today. That's just poems. That title page clears up the whole question of what it means to publish on the web, for anyone who was harboring any illusions: you are, in effect, at the world's largest poetry reading, only the poets are not taking turns. They're all reading their work at the same time. And the only audience, aside from those other poets, are either indulgent friends who have agreed to come to this monstrosity for your sake, or poor hapless souls who wandered through the wrong door and haven't managed to get out yet.

I don't know about any of you, but I'm thinking I should just take up drums, and have done with this nonsense. But hey...maybe that's just the remnants of that long, dark night of the soul clinging to me.

Peace, guys. Hope to post more often soon.


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