Archive for the 'poetry' Category

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Back Away

Sometimes our intelligence is bewitched by a metaphor. We have the sense that when we throw trash away, it actually goes “away.” There is an implicit horizon over which the trash travels as it leaves our world never to return.

We believe that the “back door” of a house is like administrative access to encrypted information by non-administrative users. As though there were some back stage from which all the strings are pulled.

Just as there is no “away,” there are no “back doors.” We need to find new words for this world we're living in.

 

Reading Mont Blanc

There are a couple of reasons that writing has migrated toward the screen. The biggest reason is that it's cheaper. The production process migrated to the screen, and in the end, it seemed easier to skip the part where you turn digital files into plates, smear ink on them, and print the offset onto paper. Once lots of people had screens that could serve as readers, the economics of it gained traction.

The same thing happened in movies and television, photography, and music. The consumption device is just a simpler version of the machines, or set of machines, used to produce the work.

The flexibility and agility provided by digital production methods hasn't really translated into the artwork. There are a few experimental attempts, but nothing has broken through into the mass market. A few people are working on computational narrative outside of the video game context. Generative music has also been available at your local app store for a while.

These kind of generative and computational works take the form of software applications. Computing power and algorithms are a necessary element of the product. They sit in a kind of no man's land between traditional media and video games. For the most part, the digital publication has simply been a cheaper form of print. As the hypertext medium matures, we'll need to see something more than “cheap.” Eventually, the audience won't be impressed with “free” or “cheap.” Libraries are filled with “free” books, but it's not on that basis that a reader checks out a book.

I started down this train of thought because of a book I checked out of San Francisco's Mechanic's Library. It's a membership library located downtown. If you like chess, it houses a beautiful chess room. Motivated by reading Tim Morton's review in the “LA Review of Books” of Steven Shaviro's “The Universe of Things,” I became interested in reading the poem that resonates so strongly with the title of Shaviro's book.

The poem is called “Mont Blanc” and was written in 1816 by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The poem is available online through a number of sources. I own several volumes of Shelley's work that contain the poem. Whenever I'm in a used book store I look for unfamiliar editions of poetry by William Blake and Percy Shelley. While their poetry is widely available, most of the editions are not very readable–tiny type, horrible layout.

Book publishers still working with ink and paper have also succumbed to the trend of producing the cheapest product possible. And when it comes to so-called classics, the worst tendencies of cheapness converge. It's as though the publisher cynically believes that it's enough to say one owns the complete works of Shakespeare in a single volume. Of course, no one would waste their time actually reading the plays; so why bother making them a pleasure to read?

You've probably seen these kinds of books. Their unapproachability has nothing to do with their status as “high art.” It's just that the type is too small. They're technically readable, in that, all the words have been converted to ink on paper. This is perhaps where the saying “machine readable” comes from.

Back to the poem. I'd been reading Shelley's “Mont Blanc” every evening for several weeks. I find that I need to read a poem a number of times over an extended period before it begins to function as a poem. I'd been switching off between various books that contained the poem. And then recently, I happened to be in the Mechanic's Library looking for something else, and thought I should find out if they had a nice edition of Shelley's poetry.

When I got to the designated shelf, I recognized the dark green seven volume, hard bound set of “The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley.” For some reason I'd always resisted it. I think I'd had a previous bad experience with an old edition of Coleridge's poems. Completely unreadable. I pulled down a volume and started paging through it. What a revelation.

This edition was published by Virtue & Company out of Boston in 1909. It's the library edition, and bears the number, 141 out of 1000. It has beautiful illustrations, and was edited by Nathan Haskell Dole. The volumes are simple, durable and luxurious.

Reading “Mont Blanc” in this beautiful edition, with excellent typography and a generous layout, was a qualitatively different experience. The poem has technically been printed in many books. All the words are there, and the lineation is correct, but not every printing of the poem actually does service to both the poem and the reader. The quality of the ink and the paper has something to do with it, but one also has the sense the publishers have a real understanding of what they're committing to paper. It's as though they knew in advance what it would be like to read these poems in this particular configuration.

Due to financial constraints, much of print publishing has lost its sense of usability. There are, of course, some notable exceptions. Web design has gone through the opposite problem. The “usability” profession killed design in the production of web sites. Some good principles were unearthed, but the usability specialists over-played their hand. We're only starting to see web sites (if there still is such a thing as a “web site”) wriggle out from under the boot of usability.

Reading the poem “Mont Blanc” online isn't a particularly pleasurable experience. The screen, and the vast network of interconnected pages behind it, seem to work against the flow of the poem. Rather than open the reader to the experience of the natural world flowing through the senses, as though one were a kind of Aeolian harp; the hypertext screen radiates the opposite polarity, and entices the reader to flow her attention through the connecting paths of the Network.

While it is true that the cost of publishing the written word will always be cheaper in some digital format, the value of the work in many cases is diminished. In the last year, a few online publications have started to break the mold and create more reader-friendly screen publications. Perhaps as we read more and more online, we'll begin to realize the absolute poverty of the reading experience. It's not very good. When the economics of publication, whether for print or screen, tells us that we can't afford to do good work–that's when the whole thing really starts to fall apart. We've been facinated with the idea of commodity prices approaching zero. What we're learning (again) is that value tends to follow price as it moves toward zero.

Where is that revaluation of digital values that we've been waiting for?

 

Hamartia: American Anti-Poetics

At its point of origin, American poetry felt great anxiety about the influence of Europe. The roughness of early American life created the impression that the continent was devoid of grist for the mill of poetic thought. Dan Chiasson writing about Emerson in a recent “New Yorker” magazine in an essay entitled “Ecstasy of Influence,” gives us the lay of the poetic landscape.

Emerson was not the poet he had in mind in “The Poet.” In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville had prophesied an American poetry free of “legendary lays,” “old traditions,” “supernatural beings,” masks, and personifications. Americans let “petty” and “insipid” lives, “crowded with paltry interests”: their lives were “anti-poetic.” The only subject possible for an American poet was humankind; luckily, as Tocqueville wrote, “the poet needs no more.” Emerson, who spent most of his life cultivating the aura of an elder, called for “a brood of Titans” who would “run up the mountains of the West with the errand of genius and love.”

The poet Emerson was looking for, of course, was Walt Whitman.

Chiasson's thesis is that if Emerson had been a better poet, somehow more in touch with his grief, emotion and vision–he would not have been looking for someone like Whitman. And without Emerson, it's possible that Whitman, and American poetry, would not have emerged in the same way.

But to me, the interesting part of Tocqueville's prophecy of American poetry is that it implies an empty landscape filled only with emigres struggling for survival. America was a wild place where everything needed to be built from scratch. You can almost hear a voice say, “when we got here, there was nothing.”

In this telling, authentic American poetry started in complete blindness, unable to see the surrounding new world. Oddly, this blindness was expressed as a freedom from the cultural traditions, legends and folklore of old Europe. The anxiety of influence created a hysterical blindness that set the foundation for the virgin birth of Titans that could hammer out an American poetry that owed nothing to its predecessors.

Since that time, American poetry (and most other aspects of being an American) has been a long coming-to-terms with the continent that was here all along. In attempting to escape the influence of old Europe, the European ideal of the heroic individual in a strange land was fully embraced and internalized. The European influence was boiled down to a concentrated elixir, smuggled in through the back door, and eventually emerged as our harmartia. We stood at the edge of a continent, hit the reset button, and declared that a new world had been discovered.

 

The Allure of “Is She Available?”

igor-goldkind
 

It’s a book of poetry, although in it’s most complete form, it’s not exactly a book. It’s more of a CD-ROM, if there were such a thing anymore. You could describe it as a multimedia presentation with words, animated images, music, comic strip panels and recitations. Igor Goldkind’s new publication “Is She Available?“, despite its intentional defiance of category, probably should be called poetry.

Full disclosure: I’ve counted Mr. Goldkind as a friend for almost four decades. This reading is of the text, a little of my friend, and the journey of a poet.

Perhaps the best example of poetry making in this mode would be the work of William Blake — the poet, painter and printmaker. Blake was also a technologist. He invented relief etching to combine words and imagery on to the same printing plate. When we read his poetry today, for the most part, we read it extracted from its original context — simplified as though we were looking at a web page in “reader view.” The poem’s text is transformed into its most legible and conservative form. The images are removed and the typography tamed. Although we find it fascinating, critics have trouble producing a close reading of a work that broadcasts on so many different channels. Film, or video game, criticism may come closest to accounting for all the levels.

This reading will focus on the text of “Is She Available?”, but there’s much more in this work that merits investigation. Return visits to view, and review, the work from different angles will be rewarded.

 

odysseus and sirens4
 

I put these poems into the larger frame of a poet’s journey. Joseph Campbell called it the Monomyth, or the “Hero’s Journey.” The poet leaves home, wanders and experiences the world, and then returns home, both changed and unchanged. For this poet, home was San Diego, California, when it seemed like the city lacked everything. It was a time before the Internet and corporate franchising made every place much the same. Looking outward, the rest of the world appeared filled to the brim — the location of danger, culture, and life. I’m going to examine four parts of the text that bring this theme into relief.

Whatever the format, the reader will be faced, first of all, with the title. The work is called “Is She Available?” Who is this “she?” Is “she” that obscure object of desire? Is she a lover, a daughter, mother, or perhaps she’s the muse of poetry itself. Whoever she is, she’s absent. There’s a separation, an aesthetic distance from which she’s viewed. The phrase also gives us a sense of her allure, her magnetism. At the outset of the poet’s journey, “she” may well be the call of the road — the as yet unfulfilled promise of the wider world.

 

peter-wendy
 

In the poem “What Peter Said to Wendy” we see the mechanics of desire, and of the journey. If desire were to be fulfilled, then the journey would be over before it had even begun. For the journey to continue, the object of desire must be desire itself — the desire of desiring. In the story of Peter Pan and Wendy Darling, Peter resides in Never Never Land. It’s a place where time idles in childhood reverie. Wendy knows at some point she must return to the world. Peter knows that he needs to give Wendy something she can take back, even if he can’t follow her there.

From “What Peter Said to Wendy”

Fear not my audacity Wendy.
I do not care for your heart, as you might think, I care for mine
And the reflection of truth’s desire I see hiding
in the forest of your eyes

It’s in the journey that the contours of the poet’s life come in to focus. Each of the poems in the volume encapsulate a moment along the path. Textures that were invisible in the youth of small town Southern California are now clearly visible. Family connections received and created take hold with real and vital force. There are battles with daemons both internal and external, and the poet tries on a series of masks to see how they fit. Think of it like a medicine man tasting all of the plants in the surrounding landscape to get of sense of their effect on the human mind and body. There’s nothing more real than this.

 

Berlin-Wall-Liesen-Strasse
 

At the far edge of the journey, the poet encounters a mirror image of his starting point. For a long time San Diego felt like a very large village. Perhaps, it’s a city now, but it remained a small town for the longest time despite its ballooning population. At first walls were built to keep the poet in, and he had to escape. Now, in this village out in the world, they’re built to keep him out. In the poem “Dry Stone Walls”, he encounters the narrow attitudes that first inspired his journey into the wider world.

You can’t build a wall round a village
You can try
You can stack honeyed stone upon stone, fashion judgement upon judgement,
into a long pretty barrier of decorative limestone
to keep the outsiders out and the insiders in
But you can’t build a wall round a village
the sun and the wind
will always find their way in

In the prototypical “Hero’s Journey”, the hero engages in a climactic battle and emerges victorious. This moment signals the change that allows him to return home. In this work, it’s the poem “Dry Stone Walls (You Can’t Build a Wall Round a Village)” that serves this purpose. The battle that he didn’t wage at home is fully engaged here. And it’s not that Frankenstein’s Creature somehow turns round and defeats the villagers, with their torches and pitchforks, but rather like “the sun and the wind”, the poet can now come and go as he chooses. The walls don’t and can’t keep the wider world at bay. The narrow attitudes of the village have lost their force, and the atmosphere of the wider world has equalized with his point of origin. San Diego has become a part of the wider world; the spell has been broken.

 

 

gullivers_travels_ships
 

The poem “San Diego Bay” marks the poet’s return. Filled with the experiences of the world, he is gigantic compared to the young man of so many years ago. San Diego Bay is now the size of a bath tub, and the giant poet washes off the dust of the road in its waters.

San Diego bay… Oh San Diego bay
Your leaden toy war ships cast a heavy grey cloud
on my sunlit-blue sky return.

San Diego bay… San Diego bay
You rounded sheet of crinkled foil at six AM in the morning looking out, looking in, at the sheet of this world, I bathe in you now.

San Diego bay
San Diego bay
You’re my Dirty
bathwater
now.

Igor Goldkind’s “Is She Available?” is filled to the brim with sparkling and challenging poetic sketches forged during his travels. The e-book is a thrill ride that’s built up layer-upon-layer on a bedrock of poetic text. This collection of poems isn’t the well-behaved straight lines of text you may be used to; they explode into sound, music and image; refusing the standard-issue poetry container.

The form of this “book” is another dimension of the journey these poems take us on. The physical form of the poems, their inscription on a multimedia surface, stops the reader’s internal voice from assuming an open-mic night, timid, confessional, “poetry voice,” and demands something more. It’s a loud book and may not be appropriate for reading in a quiet library. In fact, one of its more challenging technical aspects is figuring out the dynamic range of the poem’s sound. There may be a temptation to let the “book” read itself to you. But to take in its full effect, you’ll need to perform it yourself, at full volume.

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