Wednesday, March 27, 2019
Tuesday, March 26, 2019
It’s been confirmed: I’m a dumbfuck. I’ve long suspected that to be the case, but now I know for sure.
Here’s what happened: in an email exchange with a fellow poet, I groused about how a lifelong addiction to poetry was somehow responsible for what has been a very sketchy employment history. I confessed that “if I had pursued another career that paid the rent and medical bills, etc., and wrote poetry on the side simply as a pleasure, then yes, I’d be fulfilled with that. But I didn’t. I gave everything to poetry. When you go that route, validation for that choice becomes important. Recognition for your accomplishments is critical.”
To which he replied: “working at other jobs for a living doesn't mean one hasn't given one's all for poetry.”
Which is a pretty sensible answer. I mean, what was I thinking? I seemed to be claiming some kind of martyrdom that wasn’t really necessary. Why would it be? Who can’t come home from a job and pour a glass of wine and relax a little and then do a little writing in a lyrical vein. Putting words together isn’t that taxing. It’s not like trying to work another shift as a security guard or clerk in a car rental agency in order to pay the rent and have something left over for food, which is what a lot of people have to do nowadays.
But I wasn’t having it. I felt compelled to make an argument in favor of martyrdom. There’s a Charlton Heston in all of us and if I was going to come down from the mountain after talking to a deity in the form of a burning bush I had to make a pretty compelling case to support the clay tablets of my commitment to the high calling of poetry. So I said:
This is true – Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams being the two most famous (& irritating) examples – but what I’m talking about is a concentration on literature to the exclusion of all things else. If poetry became your end all and be all and you couldn’t hold down a job and got fired a lot because all you could think about was doing poetry reading it and writing it and the jobs you did manage to do for a while were all horrible shit jobs that paid a pittance and so you never became financially independent and now your social security checks are dinky and if you didn’t have an understanding partner you’d be out there living in a tent among the homeless. Whereas had I pursued a real career such as law or carpentry I wouldn’t be in this situation.
To which he replied (a few minutes and several stiff martinis later): “Well you dumb fuck didn't your mother advise you to go to Med School! Of course you should have pursued a real career! what was your thinking, or non-thinking, or mid-directed 'concentration’?”
I had to think about that. What, indeed, had I been thinking?
My mother was pretty eager to see me go out in the world and get a decent job and become an autonomous, fully functioning, responsible adult. No mention was made of med school, but she did make an effort to get me out the door and integrated into the work force.
I graduated high school in 1965 and went to visit her in San José, California. After lazing about the apartment for several weeks and showing no indication of a plan to become duly employed or advance myself in the labor market she drove me to the local navy recruitment center hoping I’d join up. I had absolutely no intention of joining the military, but partly out of a spirit of appeasement, and partly out of curiosity, I went along with the charade. The U.S. Navy appeared to her as a safer choice than the army or marines since the country was engaged in a war with Vietnam. Nothing could’ve been more foreign to me then, or now, to hold a rifle, take aim, and shoot someone. Murder them. I had little idea at the time as to what Vietnam was about, but I suspected – quite rightly – that there was something very hideous and evil about it. I wanted no part of it. So that was that. I pretended to be giving it thought, but when several days went by and I was not yet filling out the forms or signing papers to put my ass in the navy for four years, her next choice was decidedly less thrilling. She drove me to a car wash and told me to get out and apply for a job.
Which I did. And I got the job. Which lasted four days, before I quit literally threw in the towel. Every minute I spent wiping down cars was torture. I hated it. I saw very little room for progress in the sudsy sphere of the car wash.
I returned to Seattle and resumed living with my dad and stepmother. They were less patient. They weren’t patient at all. I was home less than a week before I had another job at a car wash.
What is it with car washes? Car washes will pretty much hire anybody. The car wash led to a dead-end job with a funeral home, washing limousines and driving a truck loaded with all the used flowers from the funeral ceremony to the landfill every Friday. That was my favorite job. I got to smoke cigarettes and listen to rock on the radio. I also had a peculiar enjoyment in the landfill. The smell of it was so unique and powerful, and the mountains of trash were fascinating; how long did it take for things to decay? Not long at all, it would seem. I found that strangely comforting. The rabid appetites of the seagulls circling the mayhem of trucks and trash awakened a certain literary perversity in me. It was a place of desolation, but also a place of remnant and remediation, a place where density and form came undone to become something else. I was at the edge of the institutional. I was at the shore of oblivion. I could feel my mind float out of my head and take wing with the seagulls.
I began reading books during my break. The Iliad, Moby Dick, Les Fleurs de Mal.
I liked books. I felt at home in books. Books seemed to be my true environment, the place where I felt most deeply engaged, but I had not yet consciously decided that I would be a writer. Nothing whatever had congealed in my brain with regard to work. I knew I hated work. My hatred of routine and boredom gave me a foundation, a fertile bed in which to drop some seeds of rebellion. An inchoate idea of the life of the artist began to take root in the lush topsoil of my discontent.
Dirt. I had a short career in dirt. The realtor who sold my parents their house wanted to hire me to spread dirt for a new lawn. So I spent a couple of days plunging a shovel into a big pile of rich black dirt and began spreading it as evenly as I could. I seemed to be doing ok at it, and one day the realtor invited me in to listen to a recording of Adolf Hitler. To this day I don’t know what that was about. Was I supposed to be reacting to how evil it was? The speech was in German. I had no idea what Hitler was going on about. Maybe he was describing the most efficient way to spread dirt. I didn’t know what my reaction was supposed to be, but the man called my parents the next day and told them I was fired. Fired from a job that was only going to last four days, tops, to begin with. It was weird. Some years after, the realtor drove into the Cascade mountains and shot himself. His wife – who had gone missing – was found buried in the lawn. Probably under the same dirt that I had so carefully spread.
Fast forward a few more years and I go looking for employment again after acquiring a bachelor’s degree in English. The degree didn’t work its magic on anyone. People urged me to leave that information out. Nobody was going to hire some guy with an English degree. Too bookish, too dreamy. What I needed to do was go on to get a master’s degree. But I balked at that because it would’ve required loans for a profession - teaching - that was reportedly over-saturated. I didn’t want to be in debt and looking for job. So I decided to try and find a job that I could stick with without wanting to kill myself in the morning. The best I could do was eventually find myself working part time for a mailing service, running letters through a Pitney Bowes machine. I did that for nineteen years.
At no point did I ever think of making a career as a poet. That would’ve been ludicrous. I wanted to be a writer. There were plentiful indications in 1965 that free lance writing could provide a livable income. Hemmingway had only been dead not quite four years. He was still an iconic figure. Being a writer was a respectable profession. People would laugh, or look aside embarrassedly if you announced yourself as a poet. You just didn’t go to social gatherings and say to one and all “hi, I’m a poet.” But you could say “I’m a writer.” That was the equivalent of saying “I’m a doctor.”
But that didn’t pan out either. It took many more years to develop my skill as a writer. And by the time that occurred writing was no longer a viable way to make a living. To become the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling was tantamount to winning the lottery. I would’ve been happy to be the next Richard Brautigan or Tom Robbins or Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski, but those slots eluded me as well.
And so I became a dumbfuck. A guy who publishes books of poetry, writes the occasional review, deposits jeremiads like this on the Internet, and grouses about how tiny my social security check is.
It’s not entirely a matter of income. When I say dumbfuck, I mean it in a literal sense. I’m stupid. It’s why I learned and developed a huge vocabulary: to disguise my essential slowness. If I’m in a room of forty some people all being given a simple set of instructions, I’m the guy that will be looking around in a panic for some clue as to what I’m supposed to be doing while all the others are absorbed in completing their tasks.
Idiot savant, maybe. I’m good at writing, it is a calling, it truly is something I love to do. But I also have a strong memory of my father and I sitting on the kitchen floor (why the kitchen floor I don’t know), my father nearly in tears because I was the only kid in my third grade class who still couldn’t tell time. My father was intent on teaching me. And he got the job done. I finally figured out how to read a clock. And later in life, when I got those shit jobs, looking up at the clock became an obsession. I learned that an hour at a desk writing goes by in a minute, and a minute in a room running letters through a Pitney Bowes machine feels like an eternity.
Sunday, March 24, 2019
At no point during my existence was being me my idea the world is out of my control I’m the dazzling thermometer of a giant temperature in which getting old becomes a theatre of broken bones and bad cholesterol and bald nouns screaming for nuance
A moment of taste is a moment of truth nausea solves itself we wear mushrooms it’s why I don’t like haircuts
I have a very friendly penis I have to reinvent myself every day a synthetic elucidation requires four ingredients recitation, rhetoric, grammar and dirt
But what about horses? Horses are alright horses are perpetual and bone horses are responsible for chivalry and conversation horses are the epitome of wisdom
We all make an effort to get out of our skulls I like to play with all the possibilities the engagement ring represents a ritual I remember the bells of Saint Sulpice
Bronze overflows the dream of a frog I don’t like to operate machinery when I’m naked it’s hard to hear impartial credible sources above the din of the garden gnomes
A lot of people on the stage struggle with acne give me dumplings or give me death I feel the need to describe something I don’t know which is more toxic capitalism or identity politics
I can describe the immaterial with a tube of air how many atoms does it take to build a violet shadows wave in the grass I have conversations with my right arm
My feelings are mine but I didn’t invent them I enjoy the sugar of anticipation the geometry of a personality is in its wardrobe I pedal an anorexic bicycle
To the moon and back can you create a feeling?
Yes of course you can you can reverse a verse by rehearsing a verisimilitude of diction which is spokes around a hub the first public appearance was discursive as a spring thaw
The hammer swims among atoms of iron stars tumble out of the sky I don’t understand patriotism the severity of distance is mitigated by driving sometimes all you need is an Oreo cookie
We have a panoramic intimacy you and I don’t we our virtue is in the ooze of the estuary even the flowers need manure distance is such a funny phenomenon the emissary of a dark algebra palpates the silence of a worm I understand my legs best when I’m standing on them
American society has lost its ethics and no longer functions as a real society I perceive the word ‘should’ as a shoulder turpentine complicates the air I would like to live in a cloud I’ve got nothing but sunshine and garlic in my suitcase I didn’t become a poet for that, no, but I can squeeze an accordion and make sounds come out of it I want to build a novel out of wax and fishing tackle
What planet is this? I’m guessing these echinoderms are homalozoans the haunted house could use mechanical arms to grab rocks and throw them at the children when Eric Clapton began wooing Pattie Boyd she had a pet tortoise in her purse and all her kisses felt like everyday things just stopped at the edge of the atmosphere and all the angels sang it’s a mean old scene when it comes to double crossin’ time the photons that are emitted by interstellar dust taste a little like old apples even the world’s best theme parks can be overwhelmed by what John Ruskin called the pathetic fallacy which is just old-fashioned maple syrup drooled over a stack of hotcakes at the Denny’s in Tillamook
Death entered the thesis and made itself at home flannel feels good in the fog how easily a table becomes a landscape I’m the ambassador of rhubarb we’ve redeemed the time with succotash
I watch a cloud struggle up an orange staircase books are like mountains they have peaks and valleys I’m often seized by the lamentation of birds I cross the border into a country of sleep what is music creosote hugs the caboose
It’s pretty in my brain sunlight speaks to the trees I chase a chimera down the street the binoculars have extended my vision I have gorilla glue on my fingers we keep all our shoes by the bedroom door there’s a lot of work that goes into making a loaf of bread I’m worried about the flooding in the Midwest I drink from the well of poetry but the bread comes from the grain grown in North Dakota and eastern Montana and Nebraska and Iowa Kansas produced 333.6 million bushels of wheat in 2016
I raise my hand in favor of tentacles the signals have all been mutilated by our urbanity I played with the Beatles in my mind
I throw myself into action our furniture overflows with the warm logic of the human body the cat hides under the bed I respond differently to different people this is your brain on words
Saturday, March 23, 2019
I seek the logic of the chameleon my brain walks around in my head looking for something to do I put a little heat under a pot of rigatoni and reflect on the failure of the suburb to solve the problem of pain
I live on a planet of waterfalls and birds, engagement rings and barns I get all my clothes out of a nearby swamp
The waterfall is a continuous narration of itself the swimming pool is shy and keeps to itself I dread the wildfire smoke this summer no one thought the planet might die
I’m the pilot of a big personality it’s basically a feeling how do you catch a quantum butterfly words stir in my mouth and become the fat crash of words in a book it’s a simple way to live if there’s a waterfall in my breath I must remain calm
I put a hive in my dream think of these words as experiments in cognition
Strange people, strange amphibians, strange countries, strange scruples, strange enchantments
I like to travel with abandon honey is a dream of glass the world is in constant flux
I can’t assume that a single molecule of my body belongs exclusively to me I think I can be quiet now we all become art at nine in the morning
I discover a universe in a begonia nature is inherently unpredictable a pound of cloud is worth an ounce of thought words are bees in the hive of a dream the life beneath me is a parable of old dry leaves it’s why the lonely sentinel endures the winter and wears the chivalrous metaphysics of a red sombrero
I have enough milk to bake a cake but not enough to build a cow
Anarchy and chaos are but a single loaf of bread away
Gas has a point it’s why I wear a bloodstream Roberta is outside cleaning the litterbox the silhouette of a hornet trembles in the expression of a heliotrope there are reasons for that but I don’t know how to explain the mechanics of a tornado without slipping on a dynasty of useless italics
What is law law is the study of rules that are created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate human behavior I have confidence in eclairs even the inelegance of nothingness has a little extra fat in it to make you smile
If I was a park I’d be Ha Ha Tonka State Park in Missouri
If I was a town I’d be Humptulips, Washington
It’s like something tickling your brain
Tenderness is free but the fire inside is dear
If the paradigm fits you must wear it to live among bones is to live among structure I remember how the windshield used to be covered in smashed insects I found an allegory for the potato in the cream sauce
The technological superiority of the Gothic approach is the result of three stunning breakthroughs: the pointed arch, the ribbed vault and the flying buttress
It appeals to my sense of the bizarre
I can’t remember the last time I saw a frog but your face right now is quite dynamic you should see it as you look down absorbed in these words
This controls nothing but a little bit of squash I have named Elijah the Tishbite
Whether nature enjoys a very real external existence or exists only in the apocalypse of the spirit is for me equally useful and venerable I do not wish to expiate but to live
Emerson and Thoreau can make us realize that the danger of no longer thinking for oneself is still in danger even in a democracy
Understanding that from this loneliness something creative can arise is the only way to grasp my existence without missing out
Wealth is an abstraction fold the honey into the butter with a pinch of salt I praise the generous spirit of the attentive reader the energy of your smile exceeds the kiss of the air conditioner
Which is an eye of flame in the ice of Superman’s palace
I push a rapture of words until they collapse into a bridge I must cross to get to the other side of a black hole a gorilla opens an umbrella mirrors embellish space the Queen of Luminosity has eyes like diamonds hands like rain I must paddle the very idea of the river upstream until it becomes a rapids of proprioception the muscles I use for this are wonderful outlines of cellular combustion mountains and rivers percolate through our senses I see a novel chained to a dogma get up and walk away I like things like that things that favor the dissolution of the ego a family of five living in a paragraph
My nose runs all the time let me give you a congenial squeeze
The tin morning of an uncoordinated religion waddles across the page dropping gearshifts and caterpillars writing comes out of a hungry unconscious I feel fire in the blister I got from paddling and now it’s a riot of sensation traveling from one place to another what are you going to do if my words turn to powder the rain scatters its punctuation on the river and everything just keeps moving with no end in sight
Sunday, March 10, 2019
The internal constitution of a word feeds the slow hum of a blue induction which is empirical and positive a taste for the immediate the rapture of fish tangled in gossamer webs of diamond dust
Your weather is a personal matter an overall distorter of reality blue and yellow and green an escape from the constraints of reality what a big wig you have
That spot of piss in the cat’s litterbox looks like freshly poured cement the speedometer of our car is spitting hardware and very humble church candles there’s a medication for this novel harmonies and vigorous rhythms strands of turmoil dripping with violins
Reality must be an awful place although there is wisdom among the masses a thoroughly romantic feeling the Kotoko of Chad are descended from the ancient Sao civilization who are known for their intriguing statuary in clay and fine personal ornaments in copper and iron today Lake Chad is disappearing it has shrunk by nine-tenths due to climate change
This line is a single strand of wire that supports nothing but itself
I have a formula for communion a longing for spring I pave an entry into trance
This is a mosaic of words it exists for and by itself literally and ranges in color from bone-white to Roman gold it’s robust and globular a big sound an epistle to the stethoscope pungent in creosote like a call to awakening the final flare-up of something about to die somersaulting in my breath a drama involving bedsprings and underwear and emotional intensity or cubic mass gathered at an unnamed place
The healing propagation of stars find me at home I have a bunch of ideas struggling for expression fossil-bearing semantic strata objects underwater feelings of oceanic bliss embedded in consciousness linear intricacies ancient rocks we keep the universe under the bed for reasons of safety it acts as a connective tissue and can be detected by its openness and transparency and weightlessness which releases energy by combining words
The elegy for elephants moves along its path swinging its trunk through a series of foreign keys I never realized what a kiss could be your kiss is like a sonata of membrane that seems to groan in a sugar paste somewhere in southwestern Greenland
An emotion is transformed into motion when it rumbles in enunciation and someone gets up from the couch to open a window space is there to be shaped vision is sounded in a fog
The cultural mechanics that manufacture religion have turned toward the embodiment of energy the earth is billions of years old and has begun to smell like a garage every little thing has just gone crazy a sense of reverence is critical to the understanding of thread
The poem has acquired a new flexibility although it has worn down by running water we can still make out certain features the world is an egg and will outgrow the problem of fate orioles hatch about 12 days later and are noteworthy for their flute-like songs
The mechanism that powers poetry has been shoved into a bouquet of stars here is an organ for nourishing an unborn horse go ahead open the welcomed doors of new imagined worlds we will fuse the words together at white heat while imitating organic substances things like oysters and cheese mental health prophylactics I hobnob with mushrooms and as you can see living forms spring out of the material itself without regard for the laws of gravity
Think of a colossal wagon drawn by animals camels elephants peacocks bears I seek salvation in art I envision a body of words imparting movement forward propulsion I can display both nerve and conviction via the physics of sentiment the slippery smell of a night fallen into the Mediterranean suffused with the spirit of dance sensuous and huge without being soft I will simulate an understanding of your legs let us embark on a raft of octaves sit at the piano and flower gently into the smell of the Italian courts the measured shuffle of shoes the first breath of air when the big oak doors open and the sunlight hits your eyes and everything rushes in at once causing privacy and cargo
Saturday, March 9, 2019
I have an itch to travel I study the zipper on my pants it gives me something to do most of my emotions are incongruous they lead me to an intriguing seclusion and I slip into another dimension
I don’t like getting old I like to sweep the ceiling with my eyes looking for other worlds other things that I can say about this one the fabric of this sense requires a structure like a tent set up in a park it needs poles and a framework it needs prisms and goulash it needs Hound Dog Taylor there’s a light shining all around me this is the rascal called poetry it causes my balls to rattle I exhort one and all to visit a junkyard it’s our new sideshow built entirely out of sugar
Right now I’m busy doing push-ups I need to get my shoulder in order it hurts all the time I don’t want to see an orthopedist but I will if I deem it necessary at some point
I might do some things here that I haven’t done before I might produce energy using words I’ve got a little device here it’s made out of calliope hearts ascension is aided by an oboe I purify it with the seamlessness of a fetus
Hanging in the closet
Don’t be seduced by so many worries some of them are abstractions bubbling with minds I twinkle like a thyroid gland among the magisterial camels of a caravan headed to Djibouti
Rip the stiches apart and you’ll find a heart beating beneath the stars are made mostly of hydrogen anything technicolor is proof that a drink is aggressively red if it’s a bloody Mary and the day is grand and large as Nevada the emotive pulse of a noble resistance visits me at night what is a mind I’m only sleeping but one day I shall awaken and rise and assume the form of Euclid’s ghost
My ancestry is bacteria microbes of the Archean era stromatolites and grandmother thrombolites microbial mats formed in shallow water please recall that mass equals energy and by doing so win a sound in China imparting words to no one in particular as a boy I was put in the outfield where I could daydream and pretend to catch the ball when on rare occasions someone hit it into my air space I stood there luminous and trembling until one fine day I sat watching the Beatles in Hamburg John Lennon goofing wearing a toilet seat around his head newly minted coins of air opposed to empire
I like pebbles and planets because I’m a little clumsy and amber is the umber of lumber experiments in knife throwing tonic cement supersonic coffee empire is no umpire the pain in my heart won’t let me speak where can my baby be
I step into the garments of magic I have a new ingredient for happiness it’s awkward to say such things I feel like a caboose on a Cubist train I hold a world teeming with grouse and shine like a sinus I’m focused on a poem by Max Jacob the window sighs
Look here at these rocks collected by Apollo astronauts you’ll never break this heart of stone darlin’ you won’t break this heart of stone you’d better go home I dream of Ireland I like to dig the earth I like to drop anchor and study the beach alpha particles flying through tinfoil crows on a wire
Texture is the literature of touch the eyes throw themselves at paintings the jellyfish are hungry for personalities I do what I can and boil I like to stretch out on the bed having taken time to cool from a molten ball this is my only Cézanne before we split into groups and look I can see the rain underwater this is my chemical identity gushing with elbows that were once adrift in space Heidegger’s hammer emitting photons before the rumor found its milieu and I drive a Subaru thus proving the old adage that a novel must be made of durable twilled cotton cloth and have words in it and exciting ideas thrown with a light quick action into writing where it all happens sand dunes and fragments of shells depressive realism and auditions for Hamlet
Thursday, March 7, 2019
The map of bamboo thrives in an exultation of steeples. There are roads one can take in life that go in truant sequence, like a rogue meow that declaims reality to be a valve, or marketplace. I see the avocados. But what are these? I believe they’re students of hope. The vagaries of hope. The soaps and gropes and tropes of hope. The students bow in concentration. They weep. Their tears become patents. The patents are only valid if there is tip-toeing and multiplication. Otherwise, they’re just nozzles walking around in a wooded area.
Hope is a Polynesia entangled in caresses of moonlight. I like drugs. But do drugs like me?
Drugs and hope go together like glands and augurs. Consider this pancreas. It rests in a bucket of ice controlled by two knights with lances. It was the prized possession of a great prince who lived in a palace of ice eating oysters and caviar and humming songs gathered from West Virginia. If there is a sleeveless one-piece dress in the closet you may put it on. You can wear it to the Ball of the Magic Pancreas. Do you have balls in your life? A life without balls is a life lived steamily amid jigsaws. Everything is a puzzle. Primeval traffic. Meaning encased in syntax. Sweet meringue scratched into existence with a blue rake and an effulgent cerebellum.
Imagine a propaganda based on punctuation. Make a bonfire on Saturday. Lend the pilot some gold. Nothing can come out of the breath but drapery. Everything else is satire.
Infinity’s vines are for rent. This will make our exchanges important and bend them into scales. I think, therefore I struggle. Coffee storms into my gums at the small café on the corner of your attention. We see tables and chairs. We see encroachments and uniforms. The careless organs of a swan. A poem by Stéphane Mallarmé eating a stadium.
The ratatouille of time is shaking in its book. I have a pound of wind with which to build a narrative of shoals and yo-yos. The detached sumptuous foam of a howling storm inserts its literature into the fungus and scenery of an existential contusion. A reader’s eyes move back and forth scraping meaning out of a page of hints and innuendoes. The leg of a cat drinks movement from a bird. The whole incident provokes a metallic tongue into making pencils of sound. We back away from the door just before a house comes crashing into real estate.
The buffalo were plugged into veins of Cubism. We plunged our minds into the problem of light. The answer brightened into unconsciousness. A few of us began to float. Some of us used oarlocks. Other used truisms. Everyone meanders. It’s a fact of life. Even the eyes of the crocodile reveal a primordial reverie as they glimmer just above the surface of the bayou.
The constant drumming has made us thin and urgent. Any rhapsody can cure a claw but can a claw cure a rhapsody? The claw is just an excuse for genuflection. Spread the limestone on the bread and the landscape will precede its own hills in a trance of speculation. The crime universe was parked next to a satyr which made everything feverish and new. The tar package jumped into cognition, and this modernized my dignity into a young male horse, which was fast, and worrisome, and made of words. I felt, at last, the airplanes sell themselves to the death of gravity, and put my trust in voodoo.
Monday, March 4, 2019
I’ve been haunted by feelings of maladjustment my entire life. For starters, I’ve never embraced the core values of United States culture: the idiotic obsession with money and its confusion with real wealth; the love of guns and violence; the virulent anti-intellectualism and exaltation of team sports; the hyper-militaristic supremacy and supposed right to dominate and exploit other people and resources; the blithe disregard for harming or inconveniencing another person or group of people; the infantile belief in the power of positive thinking and its consequent egotistical, willfully ignorant and mean-spirited assumptions about poverty, particularly the cruel policies criminalizing destitution and ascribing its causes to the personal failure of its victims. The United States is now essentially a dystopic, barbaric oligarchy with a powerful extortion ring called healthcare, a rapacious appetite for oil and a foreign policy based on bombs, hellfire missiles and warrior drones.
Strangest of all, is the cultural obsession with Christianity. If it were the real deal, if Christian fundamentalists espoused the teachings of Christ and lived accordingly the United States would be the polar opposite of what it has become. But it behaves in just the opposite way; it has far more in common with the Roman empire and its disciplined legions than the man who stood on the mount in Galilee and espoused beatitudes of mercy and forgiveness.
I find all this deeply confusing, mystifying, and contradictory since I grew up in the United States. I’ve never lived abroad. My early childhood was spent in Minnesota and my path from adolescence to adulthood occurred in Seattle, Washington. I absorbed the values of the United States. My parents were 2nd generation Americans, the schools I attended were all in the United States, and all the movies and TV shows I watched dramatized the mythologies of American life. Yet, at about age 15, I began to reject these values. I’m not sure how that came about, but books like Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, Kerouac’s On the Road and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had a lot to do with it. As did magazine articles in the late 50s and early 60s about the revelations ascribed to hallucinogenic drugs like peyote and psilocybin.
And then the Beatles: I can’t emphasize that enough. The Beatles were more than a rock group, more than a sound. They challenged the prevailing paradigms, both in England and the United States. And they did so almost by accident. They didn’t set out to subvert values and revolutionize anyone’s outlook. It was the music itself that did that. Suddenly, it was ok to be odd, to be silly, to be eccentric. You could be effeminate. You could dress weird. You could spurn the American dream and its toxic materialism. You were at liberty to evolve however you wanted. And this was accompanied by a spirit of fellowship and benevolence.
Not so much the Beatle’s immediate counterpart, The Rolling Stones. Their sound derived from the blues, from black culture, which arose out of hundreds of years of enslavement and institutional violence. There were definite subversive elements in their music, but its energy was decidedly more hedonistic and centered around the pleasure principle. It was openly sexual. It was unembarrassed by its inherent contradictions. It was Dionysian. It was defiant and urgent and brilliantly sassy.
And then there was Bob Dylan. Dylan drew on elements of Dada and Surrealism and gave the cultural momentum of the riotous 60s its poetry and drive.
I was lucky to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood during this time. I had a subculture. I had support. Friends. Lovers. Generosity and goodwill. What happened to that subculture is another mystery. It didn’t take long for it to be co-opted and commercialized and trivialized into inanition. I strongly suspect that much of that had to do with the fact that many of the principle players in that movement came from families of affluence.
Today there is very little subversion in evidence. In the music industry (which is most certainly an industry with all the pathology that the word ‘industry’ implies) you’ve got Rap, which I don’t much care for, but glad it exists. It’s full of anger and defiance. It’s aware. It’s engaged. It’s motivating. It’s abrasive. It’s a far cry from the poetry of Chuck Berry and Smokey Robinson but it’s something. It’s a manifestation of hostility to the status quo, even when it celebrates gangsterism, or exalts the power of wealth. I can hear the language of maladjustment in it: a rise in temperature for a culture turned abysmally cold.
None of this, however, answers the ongoing riddle: how is it possible to absorb the values of a culture and then find oneself embattled and burdened by them?
I look for some clues in Morris Berman’s book A Question of Values. Berman is an historian and social critic who moved to Mexico in 2006. He describes how pervasive a culture’s values are, how virtually inescapable. He refers to this phenomenon as tribal consciousness, and refers (as a partial explanation) to the theories of Richard Dawkins about the nature and the power of the meme: “an idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” It’s a virus that colonizes the brain. “Memes are essentially replicators, and their mode of transmission can be likened to a contagion.” He is also quick to point out that the meme theory itself is a meme and “can be seen as a meme, moving through society like a virus.” “But this,” he elaborates, “takes us into a classic situation known as ‘Mannheim’s paradox,’ because the scientific status of the theory is called into question (it too is a fad, in other words).”
If the values of a culture are transmitted by this quasi-genetic unit called a meme, is there a way that once can be vaccinated or develop an immunity against it? Were the Beatles, in the days of my youth, a form of counter-virus? Sure, but within the narrow framework of meme theory, the counter-virus becomes the new virus and there is no such thing as a non-meme world. There is only the Beatles, no Captain Beefheart or Frank Zappa or Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Morris doesn’t discount the meme theory so much as emphasize its pervasiveness and offers – as a form of antidote – another sociological theory called “nonparticipating consciousness.” “It all comes down to reflexivity,” he declares.
Can we break the hold of the meme-trance, and look at things from the “outside”? After all, intuitively speaking, heavy bodies should hit the earth faster than light ones when dropped from the same height, and we can plainly see the sun “rise” in the East and “set” in the West. Getting outside of the (medieval) meme here means that we look at evidence that is counter-intuitive; that we recognize that there is an objective truth to the situation that doesn’t give a damn about our personal or tribal belief system; that one can stand outside a situation and evaluate it, and extend this analytical mode to our own beliefs, and to who we are.
I am not, I should add, claiming that nonparticipating consciousness is without its problems; indeed, that was the entire point of my book The Reenchantment of the World. But it is also the case that there is too much that simply cannot be solved from within a strictly mimetic framework, and this is why we need to ask if the Enlightenment tradition can ever be made to “stick.” Reading its late twentieth-century representatives – I am thinking of philosophers such as Peter Singer and John Rawls – I am often frustrated at how naïve they are, because they are clearly taking about how people “ought” to behave (i.e., rationally) and not how they actually behave (i.e., tribally). What planet are you guys on?
Singer and Rawls don’t have any clear ideas on how to get to such a place, and frankly, neither do I. My guess is that force, not reason, will be the deciding factor in a whole host of areas as the twenty-first century wears on. But it’s challenging to think about what a non-mimetic path might consist of.
We’re all stars in our own personal movies. We write our own scripts. We do our own directing. There’s a lot of creativity involved. What gets in the way of that creative impulse is much the same as what gets in the way of original film makers: finance. You need to please your investors. This leads, inevitably, to a diluted project, an endeavor so compromised by vested interests that it’s no longer recognizable, much less original or authentic.
Psychotherapist Donald Winnicott offered a theory of the authentic self – an instinctual, spontaneous being expressing itself freely and autonomously – as opposed to a false self that is sensitive to the signals of other people and is always eager to please and be rewarded with approval. Erich Fromm gave this theory a spin by claiming that the inauthenticity of the pseudo self is a way to escape the loneliness of freedom. This is similar to the earlier claim of philosopher Sorën Kierkegaard that “to will to be that self which one truly is, is indeed the opposite of despair.” The despair, that is, of choosing “to be another than himself.” The one thing all these theories of the self have in common is narcissism. Narcissism doesn’t have to be a bad thing, there are such things as a malignant versus a healthy narcissism, but it continues to mire the self and the values that go along with that self in the larger dynamic of culture and its norms. It does suggest that if one manages to unchain the authentic self from the dictates of the norm one might be able to live more fully, more intensely. But a lot of that élan might well be spent in constant conflict with the society in which one lives. The trick is in learning how to be authentic without always being at loggerheads with people, without disrupting the social fabric to such an extent one is forever unemployable or quite possibly in jail.
There are a surprising number of words to describe people who have a tough time adjusting to the rigors of conventional society – in particular, capitalist society with all of its stupid, soul-killing jobs – few of which are without a pejorative resonance: kook, weirdo, oddball, screwball, wacko, nutjob, eccentric, freak, beatnik, hippie, bohemian, outsider and misfit. I was delighted to find that there is a blog devoted to “Outsiders and Misfits” by Wesley Stuer (). His book recommendations include – quite robustly – books by Charles Bukowski. Excellent choice.
I have a special place in my heart for Charles Bukowski. I enjoy his poetry, I like the baldness of its confessions and affirmations and the unaffected transparency of their situations and the easy spread of the words across the page. I don’t give them quite the respect they deserve because they don’t appear crafted in a way that calls out for anyone’s respect. They’re not fussed over and self-consciously assembled to please the academicians in the postmodern poetry world and now that the beat era is all but forgotten and poetry has been helped back into the universities again like a drunk put to bed in a hotel room, Bukowski’s poetry would be facing extinction were it not that it continues to find an audience among other disaffected misfits. Like Kerouac, they’re especially popular among the young.
Bukowski’s prose is where his real flair for clarity, audacity, and observation occur. Few writers capture the shabbiness of the world but also its terrible beauty as lucidly and openly as he does. And he lived it. There’s little that has been made up. I know Bukowski’s world. He spent 15 years as a mail clerk. I spent 19. He continued to drink. I quit. I admire Bukowski’s determination to continue drinking, however horrific the hangovers. Here is one of my favorite Bukowski quotes about drinking: "Drinking is an emotional thing. It joggles you out of the standardism of everyday life, out of everything being the same. It yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you against the wall. I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you're allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It's like killing yourself, and then you're reborn. I guess I've lived about ten or fifteen thousand lives now."
Friday, March 1, 2019
The nipple has been washed without harm. For this, and many other things, are we thankful today. My ears are attuned to the evolution of viewpoints. Birds sing. The clouds mutter their therapies of rain. I wear a hat of stars and alligators. A piquant sunlight awakens thoughts of matter and density and points to the boiling of leaves during office hours. Gauze curtains blow inward where Fanny Brawne lies on a bed. I emerge into tolerance and drift toward summer. I climb into bubbles and perturb the statistics of a cornflake station wagon. Loud red feathers stream behind my head. The muse of torment gives me a dollar. I buy a cheap microphone and deliver a lovely jeremiad to no one in particular. If you want an audience for your reflections, look in a mirror. I guarantee that something about makeup will elongate into victory over the vagaries of nature. This is the instinctual part of the mind, its protocol and druids, theism and drums. I feel suddenly graceful, like elevator doors opening, or a leak in my chest revealing truant emotions. I need a lot of wool in order to say what I think. My sense of angels drops into empirical bombast. Worries tumble in my mind like the noisy temperatures of a dead clock. I swim among almonds. My name is tied to a jar of clay. It contains caviar. I hurry to wax the footstool most immediate to my perception. Apple blossoms pull libraries of thunder out of the air. The river considers itself red, but the clouds are a constant source of imprecision. The maple totem has succeeded at percussion. Beauty disrupts our voyage. Distance is an attitude, not a necessity. We go where the wind blows. We go where the snowshoes decipher the snow. Where the seven tigers of whoever and whatever convene in grooves of ancient music, and the reason for zeal is understanding, and understanding is understood as radar. If anything of this comes to a boil, I will end neurosis with a scowl and scramble the meaning of bricks with a few good protons and a parenthetical trowel.