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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Fintan O'Toole has a piece in a recent New York Review of Books called, “Beckett in Love.” He starts the piece, not with love, but with failure. Not an uncommon gambit when ruminating about Samuel Beckett. O'Toole begins with the point of contact most familiar to the person least familiar with the author. It's a favorite quote of the entrepreneurial set because it resonates with a strategy of dogged determination.
The quote is from the late work “Worstward Ho.” In an age where we thirst for “context,” except when it doesn't suit our purposes, O'Toole goes on to explain the larger context of the quote.
“Fail better” (which I recently saw on a recruitment advertisement for a financial services company) is followed a few lines later by a reminder that, for Beckett, the phrase is an exhortation, not to keep trying until you succeed but to keep failing until you fail completely: “Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.”
The popular form of the quote is plucked from Beckett's “Worstward Ho” in an attempt to turn failure into just another strain of pre-natal success. Beckett, on the other hand, only found his own voice by delving deeper and deeper into failure, loss, exile, and poverty. It's fair to say that Beckett found a form of humor in these depths, but it isn't the free and superior laugh of the successful entrepreneur — the master satisfied with a job well done after several setbacks. Nor is it the comedy of bringing the high and mighty to earth, rather it's the laughter of the lowest when the epiphany strikes that there may not be a “bottom” to hit.
One imagines the corporate team building exercise where the high-priced enthusiasm consultant leads the bright-eyed group of employees through a visualization.
You know that dream where you're falling? Take yourself to that place right now. You're falling and falling. You begin to panic. Surely you'll stop soon. Perhaps you'll begin flying. But no, you fall and fall. What happens when the bottom comes? Terror sets in. It will be the end. It doesn't come. The exquisite disorientation of falling continues on and on. Numbness. And then, a moment when the absurdity of your situation emerges. You smile inwardly as you consider the notion that there may be no bottom to hit.
The public relations profession was created to repair the reputations of the 1%. The robber barons who consolidated control over industry in the United States needed to boost their numbers in the polls, and thus began the professional publicizing of acts of charity. The technology industry and its titans have finally taken that lesson to heart.
Fighting tooth and nail, then threatening to leave San Francisco for more accommodating tax havens, technology companies have negotiated big tax breaks. They're special. Not the sense that they need an extra helping hand to get their business of the ground. It's just that they want to use every piece of leverage they have over the city. When what they've wrought becomes plain for everyone to see, the oldest public relations plan in the book is trotted out. They'll participate in the community, but only on their terms. Here it comes, sweet charity.
Instead of public services coming organically through our tax base and distributed through a public political process, the tech company decides what cause gets money and how much. The money they donate creates capacity within the public budget which is then redirected to other needs. In a few years when the corporations stop giving and the public budget can't accommodate the programs, they're eliminated. What seems to be a windfall is really a death sentence.
Criticism of charitable acts is a rare thing. That's why it's a classic public relations play for the 1%. Google funds a transportation program for low-income youth, Facebook buys a police officer, etc. PR firms are paid big bucks to make sure we all know about it. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
William Blake wrote “The Human Abstract” as part of his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Put this poem on the “experience” side of the ledger. His criticism of pity and charity continue to ring true. Out of the pity of the technology giants comes charity for the poor and disadvantaged. Blake shows us that it's not “pity” and “charity” you want to put up on a pedestal. It's a difficult case to make, but Blake does it. These virtues are symptoms, born of inequalities.