Keats' odal celebration of Psyche, deified as a goddess rather than merely a figure of myth, initiates a dynamic whereby we understand Keats' conception of the feminine, and of women. Psyche, importantly, is virginal but not a virgin; if she has retained her original innocence, it is also tempered by the vagaries of an active amatory life. Keats' also initiates, from the second generation of Romanticism, a strain of androgyny in his writing, whereby he can appear wisely passive and receptive or active and imposing. These two complexes together can equal, on one level, a simple whole: Keats likes women. He likes feminine energy, feminine innocence, and the seductive power (power to charm) which emanates from this energy and innocence put into dramatic, dynamic motion in art and myth. There is, in his appreciation of the feminine, nothing particularly perverse or lateral; he represents his tastes in such a way that the wholesome (or natural or organic) is emphasized. Even what is Pagan in Keats is nature-worshipping, and wholesome. The imaginative vistas spun out of this ethos are also nature-worshipping, and wholesome, as befits a cognitive attachment to a classical reality deemed "happily pious" in relation to the England Keats was raised in. Psyche stands in the center of the odal cycle as the charming, seductive synecdoche of this facet of Keats' sensibility.
Yet, however John Keats chose to live his life among the female of the species, clearly Percy Bysshe Shelley found Keats disingenuous or deluded. Adonaistakes all this healthy, organic, wholesome energy and inverts it. As female splendor after splendor (what a splendor is for Shelley is a kind of earth-spirit or half-ghost) jumps on and molests Keats' corpse, we also see a kind of reversal in sensibility suggesting another inversion: Shelley does not like women, and feminine energy, as much as Keats does. This may be refuted by other sectors of Shelley's oeuvre, but Shelley was a poet of many moods, and a misogynistic mood may be one of them. By showing us these "damp deaths," Shelley adds an implicit critique of Keats' treatment of the Psyche myth in his odal cycle, and also (maybe, and daringly) opens a window not only on Fanny Brawne, but on what other kind of women were attracted by Keats during his lifetime. This is not just a question of the class differential between Shelley and Keats, which is (admittedly) huge in and of itself- it is a question of writing a palimpsest over a whole vision of human reality, an idealistic one, and replacing it with a perverse, materialistic, yet (also) more painstakingly honest one. If, traditionally, Keats is seen to be the materialist and Shelley the idealist, it is only because twentieth century literary criticism evinced its own perversity in molesting corpses with its splendors, and taking the easy way out, back to an inverted paradise.
The Junior Prom deposited me (and fifteen
others) on the floor of her basement. I could
barely see daylight at the time, and at three in
the morning I began to prowl. I was too scared
to turn on any lights. She emerged like a mermaid
from seaweed. I needed comfort, she enjoyed my
need. We had gone out— she was bitter. The whole
dialogue happened in shadows. No one was hooking
up in the other room, either. You spiteful little princess.
...and here is the Two Teens Trilogies "p.s.", 2013:
Whether off the bathroom counter
or the back of your hand, darling,
your unusual vehemence that
winter night, cob-webbed by
half-real figures, was animated by an
unfair advantage, which they threw
at you to keep you happy as you
died piece-meal. All I had
was incomprehensible fury and a
broken heart— when I hit the floor
at four, you were getting ready
to incise dawn’s throat, & opened—
So, there you have it. The house was in Cheltenham, the Junior Prom was a macabre as Rocky Horror, and I was in hell for this dire battle.
Another recurrence of a character in two books; Ted from Chimes here:
We had many adventures, Ted and I, but the roles we played were always the same. I was Quixote to Ted’s Sancho Panza. If we were pelted with snowballs or pelting others with snowballs, staring at girls or being stared at by girls, making prank calls or getting calls from friends, always it was my job to instigate the action, be a man of daring, direct our movements. Ted would consolidate our activity, provide focus. He was the solid man. When I would push things too far, he’d reign me in. We grew into adolescence as an odd couple par excellence; Ted quiet, me raging, Ted pliant, me baiting. However much of my father’s dominance Ted internalized, I was still able to steer things when I wanted to. Unlike N, Ted had no taste for self-made drama; things (me included) came to him. There was a long time in which neither of us could imagine a withdrawal for any reason.
...is also the focus of Cheltenham Elegy 413:
All piled into the house on Woodlawn.
They had me do all the old jokes, as though
I were a wind-up toy. Most of them had
never been in the house before. It was
about to be abandoned anyway; but my
mind still clings to it. I smoked pot there
for the first time. I got on the road to my
first hook-up at a party, & I punched a
Hulk Hogan poster’s crotch. Now even
this pile-up was fifteen years ago. The shed
in the back was filled with smoke, as were we.
That house on Woodlawn Avenue in Elkins Park was Ted's. His family moved out of it in late '96, when Elegy 413 takes place. I haven't been in that neighborhood in almost twenty years, and I wonder if it still looks the same, carries the same ambiance, which has always seemed to me rather English. In fact, all of Elkins Park is tinged in such a way to give it some of the grandeur of the more ritzy London suburbs. The rest of Cheltenham, less stable about gentility, not as much.
Each generation, and individuals born into each generation, have unique crosses to bear. What was handed to American kids born between 1970 and 1980- an iron-clad insistence, which trickled down from the media and other high sectors into the populace, on the iron-clad importance, worthiness, and compelling power of pop culture and the status of its luminaries as (barely sub-religious) icons- left us with warped emotions and stunted brains. For all that we achieved culturally in Philadelphia in the Aughts, I can't help but wonder how many kids in the population had high-level, high-maintenance creativity pummeled out of them by a Pop World/Pop Church culture, cocked at a pulverizing angle against the development of cognitive-affective attachment to serious art and creativity. If we are beginning to have perspective on the two decades in question- the 80s and 90s- it is because the Great Recession (along with the Aughts before it) has eroded the brittle foundations of Pop World/Pop Church enough that it is no longer a compelling reality for the American public. Things are drifting in a recessional space, and nothing can be enforced in an iron-clad way on a wide basis- both the numbers and the zeitgeist ethos are MIA. I have already expressed that the current "drift" or "float" is preferable to a system of Pop World/Pop Church enforcement; now that things are just what they are (no more, no less), the populace are free to use their brains.
Yet I do feel elegiac about the blood sacrifices I was forced to witness back in the day- bright kids tethered to a stupid regime to have stupid thoughts and pursue frivolous goals. Most of the Neo-Romantics, I will confess, did suffer, at some point in their respective lives, from the Iconicity Complex- the idea that crass, vulgarized fame is what legitimates a creative person, and anything less deems them unworthy, unimportant, and uninteresting. Because we were brainwashed into carrying this complex around, against the reality of the pursuit of serious art and other forms of high-maintenance creativity, which requires both rigorous discipline and rigorous patience, as well as the sacrifice (often) of short-term success or glory, we suffered accordingly, and needlessly. However much fun we had in Aughts Philadelphia, and we did have a lot of fun, this complex was always waiting in the wings to force our minds and souls into a corpse-strewn gutter. Who knows how much richer Aughts Philly could've been without this psychological hindrance on Philly Free School, the Last Droppers, and everyone else; as of 2015, it is very difficult to say.
For those with an interest in my books, this might be a useful revelation, from the writer's life. The character "N" in Chimes, who appears here:
N was the girl with the olive skin. We continued to dance around each other, loving but not committing ourselves. At a party at someone’s house in Elkins Park, we went outside together and my hands were gripped by something and they went all over her. It was a big wave and it was coursing through me into her skin. I had no me, I was permeated by the feeling of two-in-one; the third that walked beside us took over. Yet, when I called the next day, N would not commit to it ever happening again, or even to continue going out. I had an intimation that this was to be my life: full of beautiful, difficult women. N was the first and an archetype that remains visible to me when I mate, or even meet, another beautiful, difficult woman that is for me. I have a muse, she is like this: recalcitrant and blue.
...is the same character who appears in Cheltenham Elegy 420:
The Junior Prom deposited me (and fifteen
others) on the floor of her basement. I could
barely see daylight at the time, and at three in
the morning I began to prowl. I was too scared
to turn on any lights. She emerged like a mermaid
from seaweed. I needed comfort, she enjoyed my
need. We had gone out— she was bitter. The whole
dialogue happened in shadows. No one was hooking
up in the other room, either. You spiteful little princess.
...and she's in Two Teens Trilogy as well. These two poems are spaced four to five years apart, and I had to deal with her brutishness (shot through, on the other side, with incisive intelligence and intensity) through those years. She (and we) didn't always intend to start fires, but sometimes it just seemed to happen that way. And she was a decent muse in other ways I'll talk about later.
I have a few more things to say about Dancing With Myself. The perspective adopted by the author of a sonnet does not have to be a youthful one, but it tends to be. The youthful voice, exploring feelings of confinement, isolation, or (conversely, as in Keats' sonnets) euphoria and expansiveness, tends to hit us with a sense of something bubbling over or overflowing. The protagonist of Dancing with Myself adopts, uncommonly, a weathered voice and perspective, a voice already scarred by a lifetime of painful experience, even if the voice still believes in the redemptive powers of love and companionship. I think of Wordsworth and "The world is too much with us...", probably the gravest, most profound sonnet of the nineteenth century; my exiled-from-paradise protagonist shares with Wordsworth's the sense of disenchantment and alienation from the dreary intercourse of daily life and its vagaries. Yet the melancholy of age and experience vie here with the poignant sense of not-yet-atrophied emotional responsiveness, and not-yet-atrophied intellectual curiosity to go right along with it. This protagonist is weathered but not defeated.
Another bizarre Romanticism tangent, this time to Keats' Odes: the protagonist of Dancing with Myself finds himself exploring all the silence and slow time he needs, as Keats' does when he beholds his Grecian Urn.What these sonnets are drained of is the sense of original innocence engraved into the urn; that the urn celebrates youth, ecstasy, conflict, faith, and mythology, and Keats ricochets them back into his poem, mirroring the themes reckoned, adding his own gloss and prosodic richness; while Dancing with Myself explores age and aging processes, keeping the conflict, faith, and mythology, losing the youth and ecstasy. Part of the aged or weathered quality of the Dancing with Myself sonnets are expressed in their approach to form: rather than aping the Romantics, as a younger poet might, I employ what I call "clustering" or semi-formal techniques. Thus, I avoid the merely imitative, and express the maturity of a poet who can make formal compromises towards the creation of new forms.
As I've recounted elsewhere, the middle portion of When You Bit..., Dancing with Myself (mp3 locked in here PennSound), was completed in 2007 but then had to be scrapped and re-written in the spring of '08. Listening to how this twenty sonnet cycle worked out, it strikes me that the ambivalence of the protagonist, how he is on a hook he might or might not want to be on, is the dominant theme or motif which emotionally charges the piece with pathos, longing. That pathos and that longing, expressed both directly and with imagery/metaphor, raises Dancing with Myself above the first and third sections of the book (Sister Lovers and Two of Us) so that it is the most fit to stand alone.
In terms of where the Dancing with Myself protagonist is headed: if he cannot admit how many bets he is hedging about what confronts him in this relationship he's had to push (briefly) to the side (this is in "Palliative"), it is because he probably cannot decide himself how many bets need to be hedged himself. The construction crew grinding away at pavement on 21st Street ("Whiskey"), and how this protagonist "lives in his churned guts," both make visceral the cognitive-affective meat-grinder he's been placed into. Yet, looking at Dancing with Myself in relation to the history of the sonnet, other meat-grinders, which have ensnared the likes of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder and Sir Philip Sidney, have tended towards more of a sense of grievance and complaint. Wyatt and Sidney whine, where I offer up resignation. Lingering in the back, also, is the issue of duration; how long can I get this love-object to commit to me? While Dancing with Myself is more than loosely based on a situation which really did happen to, and isolate, me, I will leave it to my readers and listeners to decide whether the sonnets justify the suffering or not. That, by the way, is one function the sonnet has as a poetic form (more than, say, an ode or an elegy): to let a protagonist show us why and how he or she is suffering, and then to ask us to accept and bless or sanctify their suffering in an embrace of the literary moment.
To live through a major recession with open eyes is to see things, obvious things, and notice that the human race are very poor at bringing them to the surface: like (possibly rampant) depopulation. The American press are not discussing depopulation issues, but the algorithm for me is quite simple: with food and health insurance (ObamaCare withstanding) costing what they cost, it can't be that a large mass of Americans and America hasn't died. One also learns: not every death receives an obituary or some kind of notice. Many people die in corners or in basements or in alleyways, their corpses are quickly obliterated and no one notices. And the more "gaming" side of the population are poor at admitting that this might be the case. This is all very macabre, very lurid. And when things in general are very macabre, very lurid, all the media platitudes lumping people into conglomerates (generations, demographics) can't work and are seen through. Individuals tend to feel themselves as individuals, and individual consciousness is then free to do the trick of letting in both the truth and the art of things. The progress of the human race, I'd like to add, depends on the ability of individuals to both be individuals and cultivate individuality; and, in an odd inversion, however macabre a recession like this is, it also frees up the works, against a stultifying press and other inhibiting factors, for individuals to employ their brains the right way.
I think of the 1970s (I was born in '76), how recessional they were, what they must have been like. The macabre in popular culture was everywhere, from The Exorcist to Phantom of the Paradise and Rocky Horror, not the mention Sister Lovers and Axe Victim; along with the recessional sense I have learned, that (as later histories were unwilling to represent) no one was paying that much attention. People in recessions drift in individual and individualized head-spaces. It's like that now too- no one's going to get a Thriller moment out of Taylor Swift or Selena Gomez. The problem about the 70s into the 80s in America is that when America woke up in '82(ish), it was to a pop culture extravaganza world, set to be inhabited by cultural babies, homogenized to a low frequency, and against the interest of those cultivating the higher echelons of individual consciousness. As 2015 can be considered another version of 1975 (or '76), what I like about where we are, if you can survive the recession and its macabre sense of dread or foreboding, is that what I feel when I walk around Philly and its environs is space. Because the Pop Baby World isn't turning what's left of the population into homogenized mush, we are free to use our brains as we please, and forge whatever systems of consciousness out of our respective head-spaces we want. This balance: the weight of dread versus the addition of cognitive freedom (along with, when we are lucky, enchantment); makes it so that the recession has dirtied some facets of America and purified others. What's left of America can bring forth, against the vestiges of one of the more carnivorous human centuries on record, a new kind of American landscape built not of dross but of thought.
Though no sustained narrative buoys it up, “Apparition Poems” is meant to be sprawling, and epic. An American epic, even one legitimate on world levels, could only be one made up of disparate, seemingly irreconcilable parts— such a state of affairs being America’s, too. The strains which chafe and collide in “Apparition Poems” are discrete— love poems, carnal poems, meta-poems, philosophical poems, etc. Forced to cohabitate, they make a clang and a roar together (or, as Whitman would have it, a “barbaric yawp”) which creates a permanent (for the duration of the epic) sense of dislocation, disorientation, and discomfort. This is enhanced by the nuances of individual poems, which are often shaped in the dialect of multiple meanings and insinuation. Almost every linguistic sign in “Apparition Poems” is bifurcated; either by the context of its relationship to other linguistic signs in the poems, or by its relationship to the epic whole of the book itself. If “Apparition Poems” is an epic, it is an epic of language; the combative adventure of multiple meanings, shifting contexts and perspectives, and the ultimate despair of the incommensurability of artful utterance with practical life in an era of material and spiritual decline. It is significant that the poems are numbered rather than named; it emphasizes the fragmentary (or apparitional) nature of each, its place in a kind of mosaic, rather than a series of wholes welded together by chance or arbitrary willfulness (as is de rigueur for poetry texts).
This is the dichotomy of “Apparition Poems”— epics, in the classical sense, are meant to represent continuous, cohesive action— narrative continuity is essential. “Apparition Poems” is an epic in fragments— every poem drops us, in medias res, into a new narrative. If I choose to call “Apparition Poems” an epic, not in the classical (or Miltonic) sense but in a newfangled, American mode (which nonetheless maintains some classical conventions), it is because the fragments together create a magnitude of scope which can comfortably be called epic. The action represented in the poems ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the heroic to the anti-heroic; there are dramatic monologues set amidst the other forms, so that the book never strays too far from direct and directly represented humanism and humanistic endeavor. The American character is peevish if not able to compete— so are the characters here. Life degenerates into a contest and a quest for victory, even in peaceful or solitary contexts. Yet, if the indigenous landscape is strange and surrealistic, it is difficult to maintain straightforward competitive attitudes— consciousness has to adjust while competing, creating a quandary away from the brazen singularity which has defined successful, militaristic America in the world.
Suddenly, American consciousness is beleaguered by shifting sands and multiple meanings— an inability, not only to be singular but to perceive singular meanings. Even as multiplications are resisted, everything multiplies, and often into profit loss, rather than profit gain. The epic, fragmentary narrative of “Apparition Poems” is a down-bound, tragic one, rather than a story of valor or heroism. The consolation for loss of material consonance is a more realistic vision of the world and of human life— as a site of/for dynamism, rather than stasis, of/for multiplicity, rather than singularity. “Apparition Poems” is a vista into “multiple America” from Philadelphia, its birth-place, and a city beleaguered also by multiple visions of itself. No city in America has so much historical heft; nor did any American city suffer so harsh a demotion in the brutally materialistic twentieth century. Yet, as “Apparition Poems” suggests, if a new America is to manifest in the twenty-first century, it might as well begin in Philadelphia. If the epic focuses on loss followed by more loss, rather than eventual, fulsome triumph, then so be it. And if “Apparition Poems” as fragmentary epic imposes a lesson, it is this— the pursuit of singularity in human life is a fool’s game; the truth is almost always, and triumphantly, multiple. If multiple meanings are difficult to assimilate, there can still be no recourse to anything else, for the scrupulous-minded and cognizant.
They say it's some barbaric banker
in Athens, Berlin, Dublin, London,
New York, LA California;
not your average American gangster.
'It wasn't the Klan or the Skin heads Or them that blows up' different 'Churches, reincarnates us on Death Row',
But Bush, Rove, West, Limbaugh, Beck
Trump, Palin; and the rest of the fanatics
Cast on the wrong side of history, failing,
Exposed, the ignoble motives & forgettable
Lie upon lie of McCarthyen Propaganda.
24/7 falsifying public records, forged
By the immensely unimportant human ego,
Senators, governors, chiefs Of police, FBI,
CIA, State Dept, reach in illogical costume
inhumane reasoning, the lowest moral order
and poorest sanity,
Most of humanity leasing happiness
Freedom, democracy, in empires of potentates,
Hidden kings embodying powers in the blocks
Of billions they stole. Somebody stole America
A witless moron with wealthy parents
Bringing yawl tha good ol' Geronimo vibe;
Cartels and cabals plundering Columbia
Dumbocretin dem and repugnicon sneering
English we do not speak, beckoning away,
Away with Columbia's gilt, Kansas city
Banks, masses of private capital living
Breathing federal transfers of bullion
Murmuring in micro-second millions, in a blink
Numberless billions and far fetched trillions,
Olowalu, Ottawa, Oklahoma; everywhere it is
Printed, the financial system; somebody stole
It; a handful of assholes, somebody stole
America, Fort Knox, Greenwich Village, Dylan's
Soul, Hartford, Halifax, happiness, blessings,
fantastically eloquent experts on all things
modo, of the moment, contemporary American
talkers in bright bold mush, cool, detached
and lofty orators, aping toobs, ranting fools
bring it back, bring it back, bring it back
exquisitely conducted on philosophical branches
of inquiry in the salons of Cyberville.
The mannered dictions, outrageous positions,
sheer affronted vitality reflecting, perhaps,
metaphorical masters and mistresses of ancient
Cree deities, knowers of Graeco-Roman gods
from Apollo to Zeus, Eamhain, of the Apple trees
of swans and yew trees, Emerson, Eliot and Poe
tu-wit tu-wooing an American conundrum
conflating in flyte what is wrong or is right,
correct or inaccurate, kerching kerching kerching
O the memory of it sings, city shining on a high
and hollow hill, America be true, America be
brave, Columbia come wipe away our original
stain of Slavery, tears, culture, sanitize our founding
facts, transmute to modern American myth, God-
father, Pulp Fiction, inhabitants of darkness, noir
ma, on top o the world, a saintly scholar mam,
the noble arted one, hallowed jangling scripture
with conviction, true make our dream become.
That language, used to create musical effects in poetry, is not arbitrary; does, in fact, depend on meaningful or artful arrangement to establish and consolidate its effects; chafes against the confines of Deconstructionist discourse. The Deconstructionist commonplace, derived from Saussure- that linguistic signifiers are arbitrary (and this dictum is usually presented as iron-clad)- does not deal adequately with either the musical potentialities of language, or how they have already manifested significantly in the lyrical poems produced both by French Symbolism and English Romanticism. Deconstructionism is notoriously soft on dealing with poetry in general- key texts like Roland Barthes The Pleasures of the Text lean heavily on fiction, as Barthes deals (for example) with Proust and Robbe-Grillet rather than Baudelaire. Poetry, especially lyrical poetry, is a direct threat to the sanctioned discourses of Deconstructionism- as a tactile, manifest testament to not-arbitrary language (which advertises, in both its intentions and its effects, its own artfulness and non-arbitrary quality), created by individuals, often to make metaphysical inquiries, and to induce sensual, visceral cognitive pleasure and enchantment simultaneously.
Lyrical poetry signifies a set of imperatives or complexes- aesthetic interests which, when fulfilled, can appear serendipitous without stumbling into the disarray of the random; and, the more exquisite the verbal music produced, the less random it seems. The materiality of this kind of text (be it Keats or Baudelaire) has its own meaning and purpose indigenous to it; it is self-sustaining and self-justifying, and manifests its purpose in its own material subsistence. Deconstructionists would, if they could, disavow lyricism; however, to disavow lyricism is to disavow all music; to discard Keats and Baudelaire would be to discard Bach and Beethoven, as well. Music can be justified qua music or qua language. Roland Barthes leaning heavily on fiction is suspect- both because fiction reinforces master narratives (of cohesiveness, of reality) of human life which may be false, and because novelistic language does not have the hinge to being irreplaceable, singular, individual which accomplished lyricism does. Unless Deconstructionism in the twenty-first century can develop a discursive chiasmus with poetry and the lyrical, there will remain suspicions that the motivations of/for Deconstructionist discourse are destructive, rather than creative ones; and that the Deconstructionist elevation of fiction over poetry has in it the contradiction of willful ignorance of musical language (melopoeia) which, in both its motivations and its effects, is not arbitrary. It is another frightening realization of an alignment between Deconstructionism and post-modernity- an alignment based, metaphorically speaking, on killing.
It is natural that the burgeoning twenty-first century have some questions for the remnants of the twentieth. To re-interrogate Deconstructionism, its aims and ethos: would it be transgressive to inquire whether certain Deconstructionist formulations employ roughly the same imperative spread-sheet employed by post-modernists and post-modernism? If Deconstructionism and post-modernism do share a number of imperatives, will that create a conception of Deconstructionism acceptable to us in the humanities now? These questions would not arise in my consciousness unless I harbored suspicions that The Death Of The Author, the dissolution of the constitutive subject, and there is nothing outside the text might have been meant perhaps more literally then some have supposed. As in, the Deconstructionist game consisted, at least partly, of wiping out the potentialities of individuals and individual authorship, and obliterating (as post-modernism did, in destroying both aesthetic formality and metaphysical inquiry) any sense for the potentialities of being an individual against conglomerate interests at all. These are dark surmises, and may end as nothing more, just as looking for depth consonance beneath the surface of Deconstructionist textuality may or may not find anything jeweled behind the veneer of crabbed hermeticism which constitutes most Deconstructionist texts, whether they be games against metaphysical inquiry or not, and whether Deconstructionism amounts, at least in part, to a disguised, baroque-seeming enforcement of post-modern rigor against aesthetic formality, metaphysical inquiry, and the potentialities of the individual against society.
I'm thinking of these things as I continue my own inquiry into values around aesthetic formality, via examination of Keats' Odal Cycle. Keats has his own, individual manner of enforcing the form of his forms; how he makes the Odes preen (and I do not wish to use "preen" pejoratively, though it may seem so) and pirouette in advertising their own sumptuous gorgeousness, and every form becomes meta-formal in advertising itself. The liberation possible in this century, expedited through myself, Abby, and PFS in general, has so much to do with the potentialities of individuals, both in alignments and against conglomerates and conglomerate interests, that I can't help but laugh at the post-modern illness, which blusters boldly forward, proud never to seem to be retreating, from New York nothingness into greater New York nothingness, while poor Abby and I are forced to blaze a trail that, where formality is concerned, must begin from nineteenth century models (Keats, Shelley, Ingres, David): shame on us! Metaphysics, formality, individuals! The dark supposition of a secret alignment between Deconstructionism and post-modernism is just one vista issuing out of what we have accomplished in the last ten years of Philadelphia, and it remains just that for me: a supposition. It will take a few decades for Deconstructionism to demonstrate just how much was (and is) actually there beneath the surface of its dictates, and for what grows up around PFS to respond adequately.
I set this particular book, “When You Bit…”, in Chicago, because I visited Chicago several times between 2006 and 2008. 2006 was another pivotal year for me— in many ways, the Philly Free School in its original form effectively ended (Mike Land’s 7/29/06 extravaganza at the Highwire being the final Free School show with all the “classic” elements in place), I finished my M.F.A. and began as a University Fellow at Temple, and, most importantly, harnessed all my energy (which hitherto had suffered some dissipation) towards writing and publishing poetry seriously. I hit some open spaces and some walls instantly— “Beams” was published by Blazevox in late 2007, but accepted for publication in October ’06; roughly the same time my first poems appeared in Jacket Magazine. The walls I hit had to do with the infrastructure of the Philly poetry community. During the Philly Free School years, I was shielded from facing this infrastructure— by a vibrant social nexus, by our multi-media approach, and by my then-scattershot approach to publishing. Now, I found a new world which was bitter, brittle, hard, and cold, and I found it alone (Mike, Nick, Mary, Abby, and the rest had gone their separate ways, at least temporarily).
The Philly poetry world, at high levels and where high-stakes publishing was concerned, was run by old money and what could be purchased, which was everything. Two or three tightly constructed and connected cliques ruled the roost, and demanded absolute conformity and forfeit of control for entrance or acceptance. These cliques also frowned on sexualized behavior and artistic work; on attractive looking people in general; and on poets being judged by talent, rather than by strictly reined-in and by-certain-books behavior. This all sounds rather daunting, and it was. But the key figures in these cliques were also hopelessly untalented geeks, bizarre looking, and not particularly taken seriously by anyone outside of Philadelphia. One of their funniest riffs was about talent— in their world, there was no “talent,” and “talent” was a myth created by naïve patriarchal authorities to impose subaltern status on their underlings, etc, etc. They also hated poetry— “it’s not the poems, it’s the thoughts about the poems.” The net effect of all this meshigas is that by late 2006, I had seen a new, waste land version of the city I loved. I was determined and ambitious— I wasn’t going to run back to curating Free School shows, and give up the idea of making my name as a poet. I also had some newfangled advantages— the Net, and particularly Blogger, were finding ways to save my ass. But the whole in-love-with-Philly, Free School vibe had turned sour.
As of late 2006, the new Philly for me was a monstrosity. If I was going to find romance, intoxication, and intrigue, I’d have to look elsewhere. Because, during the course of doing my M.F.A. I had befriended a Chicago-area poet named Steve Halle, it looked like Chicago might be an option. I made arrangements to visit Chicago in December ’06— to stay with Steve in the Chicago suburb Palatine where he lived, to read with him at Myopic Books in Wicker Park, Chicago, and in general to commiserate with the Chicago poetry community. My visits to Chicago weren’t anywhere near as baroque as the Free School years— moderate drinking and drugging, no carnivorous carnality. But I did find Chicago enchanting, and unique, particularly Wicker Park, which was always our first stop in town. Chicago reminded me of the best bits of New York and D.C. in composite form— the cleanliness of the one, the imposing scale of the other. I liked the fact that being in Chicago (even more than New York) was like being marooned on an island in the middle of America— and that middle America (places like Palatine) was a sight to see. I found life in Palatine like being on the moon.
In short, I found Chicago imaginatively stimulating enough that the weight of dealing with waste land Philadelphia was balanced. The idea for “When You Bit…” began from a small incident which happened at a bar in Andersonville after one of my Chicago readings in mid-2007— a Chicago poetess picked up my arm and bit it. She and some of her friends became the Muses for “When You Bit…” I decided, early in the game, to employ the sonnet form here— both because the emotions of longing and confinement were being investigated, and because I felt I could take the sonnet form someplace new, towards transgression and perversion. My particular Chicago Muses were two poetesses who seemed to always show up as a Dynamic Duo— as the initial portion of the book would investigate a ménage between a protagonist and the two of them. The middle section of the book would dwell on the protagonist’s interiority; and then the final portion of the book would reunite the protagonist with one of the Dynamic Duo. As I mentioned in an interview with Mipoesias in ’08, the narrative structure of the book is this: 3, 1, 2. The action is set in Chicago, but doesn’t necessarily need to be— the real activity is in the protagonist’s consciousness, as it and he sift through the vicissitudes and junk-heaps of the flesh to find something genuine.
Is the music enough? If the point of John Keats' Odal Cycle is to lead the reader back to the vista that the prosody's the thing, can we accept, as we would accept in Bach or Beethoven, that the rich formality of the Odes is its own aesthetic justification and reward? If I can, it is because (as I said) what we accept in Bach and Beethoven we should be able to accept (also) in Keats. What I want to discuss here is that, in Grecian Urn, Keats' stages a demonstration of melopoeia, poetic music, for its own sake, in stanza three, and the achieved "mad for it" effect is clearly meant to be euphoric ecstasy:
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
"You and I are gonna live forever," indeed. To me, stanza three stands as self-conscious mimesis of pagan or tribal spirit, which is angled (as is suggested later in the poem) against cognition and towards the passion and the rapture of purgative, self-expressive celebration (whether in a creative context, as with those who created the urn itself, or not). Ultimately, whether magnificent prosody alone can justify the Odes is an important question, specifically because how you answer is an accurate barometer of how well you do or do not relate to forms and pure formality in major high art consonant art. If form and formal rigor were benched, as from a ball-game, in the twentieth century, it is for a reason few suspect- superior formality in art is just as threatening and dangerous as narrative-thematic levels, both to the unenlightened and to conglomerate groups who would like to subject art to its dictates. It is an expression of extreme and supreme individuality, and as such encourages individuals who are moved by it to attempt to find an individual voice for themselves. This, the twentieth century could not abide. If a significant number of individuals go "mad for it" in the twenty-first, once again the human race, at least in some sectors, can come to terms with the vagaries of individuals who bother to do things for themselves.
The motivation of this pdf is to collate and consolidate what I deem to be the cream of the Philly Free School’s artistic achievement. I have taken into consideration what I have not taken into consideration— that this judgment is mine alone. If other artists would like to argue for other placements/arrangements, they are welcome to. Nevertheless, for me: what do Abby’s “Nine Paintings” and my “Apparition Poems” have in common? I have been stunned by the parallels (and parallelism) between the two— I’ve already addressed many of the key motifs. They include: a certain approach to depth and complexity involving multiple and multiplying themes and potential meanings; a sense of “queerness” or oddity which is intermittently sexualized (for Abby, the application is more literal); an urban, rather than suburban or pastoral orientation, which is often site-specific to early twenty-first century Philadelphia (which, by not being New York, builds another level of queerness into the construct); a lack of indigenous American aesthetic influence, and a mistrust of twentieth century art in general (bloodlines running from Abby to nineteenth-century France, Ingres and David; from me to nineteenth-century England, Keats and Wordsworth), while the work does thematically engage contemporary America; and a generalized ambience of darkness, moodiness, the eerie and the haunted.
The difference between Philadelphia-via-England and Philadelphia-via-France (and the twentieth century largely being passed over) is rather pronounced; my approach has in it many levels of directness and earnestness which could comfortably be called English levels, and an adjunct to English Romanticism; Abby’s lateral sense of perversity and absurdism, her inability (thematically) to be morally or ethically earnest, is quintessentially French, while the French sense of darkness has a perception of absurdity built into it, and English gloom can be just plain gloomy. To bring the male/female dichotomy to bear on “Nine Paintings” and “Apparition Poems” is even trickier, and more lateral; Abby’s approach has some feral energy and some tenderness to it; it is as androgynous as the highest art tends to be. About “Apparition Poems,” it would probably be inappropriate for me to comment on. I will remark that I call these two collections together "Rising in Scorpio" specifically because, in this context and in 2013 America, it seems to me that the darkness, depth, and complexity of the two collections will be experienced in many contexts as more feral than not, with many “stings” built into it, for lazy post-modernists and semi-comatose centrists. Good art has always been capable of stinging mediocrity to death, if properly placed and contextualized at the correct moment; for the Philly Free School, the time is now.
It is also my idea (and, honestly, it could be called a pretense) that, if the Philly Free School plants the right seeds, the twenty-first century might be more germane for serious art than the twentieth was; even as our politics, sexual and otherwise, import the best of what the twentieth century had to offer. The higher connotations of the Scorpio archetype have to do with depth, complexity, and the darkness of unsparing truthfulness— the imperative towards unsparing truthfulness (against “eerie” effects which are easily generated and can be superficial), primitive though it is, was important for Abby and I. Even more than myself, Abby suffered in her life from a desire for absolute purity on all levels. “Nine Paintings” and “Apparition Poems” show Abby and I at a point of maximum and precarious balance— able to be truthful and artful on profound levels at once. To do so was, for both of us, in the America we inherited, an act of almost foolhardy bravery; but we did it anyway.
As I have discussed at length elsewhere, 2005 was a hectic, tumultuous time for me. On a bunch of different circuits (including the Philly bar scene and the art scene, which in the Aughts were first cousins), the Philly Free School was a fire set loose. My writing life wasn’t (couldn’t be) terribly disciplined at the time—
though I had written “Wittgenstein’s Song” in April at the Last Drop, and debuted it in New England. My spring M.F.A. semester was nonetheless a personal milestone; through Anne Waldman, I became steeped in nouveau poetry and the avant-garde; and my piece (written for Anne) “Wordsworth @ McDonald’s” came out in Jacket #28 in April, too. Being younger than thirty and in Jacket was part of my wild ride then. I was feeling cocky, and puckish.
It was in character for me in 2005 to believe I could create a valuable poetic form out of thin air. In truth, the eponymous section of “Beams” I wrote at that time is not a substantial formal breakthrough; what I call the “Beam” form isn’t that unique or striking. The poems have more strength in their thematic gist than in their formal inventiveness— lots of twisted, warped sexuality, precursor to the “When You Bit…” sonnets and the “Madame Psychosis” poems, written a year later. It wasn’t a stretch for me to be warped about sexuality in mid-Aughts Philadelphia. Or New York, where Mike Land’s sister Anna lived in the East Village. The “Madame Psychosis” poems of ’06 were formally and thematically more self-conscious; partly because I was trying to be painterly (in the manner of de Kooning and his “Women”), partly because the formal imperative was to compress (in the manner of Keats), partly because I’d been perverted by a period of promiscuity, and knew it. Many of the best “Madame Psychosis” poems were written in New England; “debbie jaffe” was written in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. I lifted the title of the series from Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” which I read at that time.
One of my odd discoveries then was that a huge puritanical streak ran through avant-garde poetry in America. One female editor, in particular, castigated my pervishness in a memorable way, by laying down a gauntlet—if she was going to publish me, it had to be something more abstract or impressionistic, and not so sexualized. I wrote the original “Apparition Poems” (which later mutated in a more expansive direction) for her—some of them wound up coming out, also, in Jacket #31, and in a Lake Forest College Press anthology. As “Beams” was being written, my life tightened and became more focused- I finished my M.F.A., started as a University Fellow at Temple, and the Free School ceased to function as a cohesive entity. The “Virtual Pinball” poems, co-written with Swedish poet Lars Palm, were a kind of last hurrah for the profligate Free School period—written in an arbitrary, haphazard manner, often from whatever I happened to be listening to on the radio. By October ’06, I had compiled the “Beams” manuscript of the four series and sent it to Blazevox. It came out as a Blazevox e-book a year later.
“Beams” is as close as I’ve come to publishing something representatively post-modern- a book which prizes quirk, anomaly, and disjuncture over depth and intellect. If I had to move past it instantly, it is because I found the strictures of post-modern verse too limiting. There’s too much human reality which can’t be expressed with quirk and anomaly; and too much ephemerality in the post-modern approach for a disciple of British Romanticism to accept or embrace (even if UK poet Jeffrey Side connected “Beams” with Blake in an ’08 review of the book). If “Beams” has a claim to some enduring importance, it is because I dared to tackle a serious theme (human sexuality) in a few novel ways, and without unduly obfuscating what the theme was.
Not all places and times deserve to be memorialized. If Philadelphia in the
Aughts is a place and time which does deserve to be memorialized, it is because
a unique spirit and ethos proliferated there. It had something to do with arts
and culture, something to do with sex, and something to do with an essential
looseness just settling in Philly, in the streets and bars. It was a loose
enough place and time to almost seem disjointed, for those of us attuned to
this zeitgeist. It’s not like Philly in the Aughts got any hype as a “Swinging
London” level hotspot; all the ferment and sultriness was a secret (and the
down-bound, jealous Philly press corps was eager to keep it that way). But the
Philly bohemians of the Aughts were more unconstrained in our endeavors for our
secret status. No one seemed to mind being a secret, either. Many of the best
narratives from Philly in the Aughts were secret. Many of us led double and
triple lives; some of us were forced by circumstances to do so. The four
narratives included here, all based in Philadelphia
in the Aughts and early teens, focus on secrets being unearthed.
“Feel: An Elegy for Our Times” is a cri de couer meant to
speak (however quixotically) for all of us. The template, Allen Ginsberg’s
“Howl,” is dusted off and given a fatalistic, rather than an anodyne, ending.
“Letters to Dead Masters” is an epistolary novel written from a fictional café
called the Grind; the focus is on minute incidents and daily life, rather than
incantatory passion and epic scope. The letters which comprise the novel,
addressed to English Romantics Byron, Shelley, and Keats, explore the gulf
between creative imagination and practical imperatives. They also delve into
social mores and the structuring of social contexts in Philly. “A Poet in CenterCity”
is more transcendental; it concerns the developments of social and artistic
life around a protagonist based more than loosely on myself. The crux and
highlight of the book is its portrayal of the Philly Free School; specifically,
the relationship between the four founding fathers of the Free School, and the
daily congeries of circumstances which created this relationship. It’s a
narrative of troubled brotherhood. “Trish” is a story of unbridled sexuality
and romance; it speaks to the core of what made Philadelphia in the Aughts unique. Convention
doesn’t ascribe any particular romance to Philadelphia;
but it was a city of romance for us. The romance was unselfconscious, and
uncalculated; it wasn’t generated by images, but by flesh. That essential
triumph, of flesh and blood over images, was one we savored, without ever quite
knowing what or why we were celebrating. The celebratory streak Philadelphia had in the
Aughts was sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. The biggest PhillyFreeSchool
shows made it difficult to deny that something unusual was happening in Philadelphia. But the
spirit of the times, the zeitgeist, was personal, as well as public. We all,
for a few years, allowed each other to have a heart and a soul. We didn’t
realize how rare it was for this mutual permission to be granted. If I am
allowed any sway, no one in the arts will be able to forget this development
any time soon.
There was one night in the mid-Aughts where Mary and I
tried to set Abby up with Gaetan. Mary, Abby, and I trooped over to Gaetan's
studio at 13th and Carpenter. We sat around getting baked on weed for a while.
Then, a problem emerged- it was clear that Gaetan was going out of his mind
with lust for Mary. I had to forcibly remove him from her person. Mary was
often flirtatious without realizing it, especially when she was stoned. Abby
clearly thought Gaetan was a degenerate sleaze.
Speaking of which, Gaetan was dating a burlesque dancer
named Melissa at the time. Gaetan and I recorded half an album's worth of demos
in mid-'05. We were chilling out after one of the sessions, when Melissa showed
up. Melissa never spoke to me directly, nor did Pia, nor did Courtney, nor did
anyone from that crew. They just didn't. What Melissa did do was to strip down
to her bra and panties and begin to have sex with Gaetan right in front of me.
I was fucked up on pot, and signals were getting crossed- did they want to do a
threesome, or were they trying to get rid of me? I decided to play it safe, and
Mike was another one who didn't do well with the
burlesque crew. Several times we hung at Gaetan's studio with Gaetan, and the
burlesque crew were in and out. Mike had the bonhomie and social flair of the
barfly; the intense inwardness of junkies was incomprehensible to him. It was
funny to watch Mike's bonhomie fall flat (which it almost never did) because he
was too stoned himself to realize that this was the case. Mike was more in his
element when we went to the burlesque revue at the Five Spot, because he could
Nick never called Mike "Mike," he always used
his full name, "well, Mike Land..." he'd say, or, "aw, come on,
Mike Land..." He'd also, when he was drunk, talk over anyone in his path.
I believe he refused to meet Gaetan. The odd thing is, for all the surface
jocularity, Mike and Nick were a rather icy pair. Mike, in drunken moods, would
not only humor Nick's head games, he'd encourage them; and, being masochistic,
would often get bashed by them himself..."aw, you can't be serious, Mike
Nick also had fun with the FreeSchool
sycophants. He could argue rings around them, where the arts were concerned,
and did. I managed, inadvertently, to get revenge for everyone sideways by
nicking one of Nick's "birds." It worked; he was chastened. But it
was also another brick in the wall which separated Nick from all of us, and
made it imperative for him to eventually leave.
The saddest day for me and Nick was the day of the parade
after the '08 World Series (the Phillies won). I ran into Nick on the Broad
Street Line subway. It was absolutely jam packed. We talked, and he invited me
to go on a bar-crawl with him and Mike, who was back temporarily from L.A. Nick was shocked and
crushed that I demurred. In my mind, that day, he was stuck.
I never thought the L.A.
"up" persona worked for Mike. He was jocular, but he was never
authentically light and breezy. There were always complications. When he turned
on the L.A.
"thumbs up" stuff for me in '09, I thought that he was as lost as
Nick. There was too much dirt and grime in his soul that he needed to talk
about, and he was trying to be a cookie-cutter person. I didn't express this to
him, because by '09 it was none of my business.
When Jeremy and I stopped talking in the spring of '07,
it was because of a reading we were supposed to do in Brooklyn together. It was set up by a well-known NYC poet. The problem was, once we got
the gig, Jeremy wouldn't leave well enough alone. He started (as I heard)
pestering her with e-mails and asking for perks and favors. I was harsh with
him one night on the phone about this, and he never forgave me. His final
gambit on the Philly arts circuit was a reading series called "Toiling in
Obscurity." The fliers carried the tag-line, "even our minor accomplishments
are overshadowed by our utter anonymity."
The night I met Dan Baker and Matt Stevenson for the
first time (Matt and Dan were meeting for the first time too) was at a place
called St. George's, on 7thStreet off of South, upstairs, in late '99. The
Buckery Brothers were playing (separately), among others. There was a huge
lightning storm that night, and, providentially, St. George's upstairs had a skylight. It was
the best show I ever saw Dave Buckery play, and even he seemed happy with it. I
not only got drenched walking home, I didn't feel a thing.
A few of the This Charming Lab shows in 2000 took place
at Doc Watson's. After one of them, Gaetan and Richard (from Metro at the time)
disappeared abruptly. Gaetan told me later- they got picked up by two girls and
taken to Wildwood or SeaIsleCity.
Gaetan was carrying H around with him. The combination of H and fatigue made it
so that, at the girls' hotel (or hostel), Gaetan mysteriously
"floated" (i.e. fell) down the stairs, and Gaetan and Richard were
ejected unceremoniously. As usual, they found miraculous means to float back to
At Gaetan's 28th b-day party, in 2004, at his studio at
13th and Carpenter, someone suggested we should all undress, so we did. A
bottle of Stoli was being passed around. I decided to outdo everyone (knowing
they thought me a lightweight) and do about eight shots at once. As Al Pacino
said in "Carlito's Way," "bad start, Jack." I was flying
high for about fifteen minutes, and then got hit with a wall of intense nausea.
I dressed quickly, and managed to walk all the way from13th and Carpenter to
21st and Race without vomiting. And then vomited all night.
Gaetan also had a Mardi Gras party @ some time in the
early Aughts when he lived on4th Street between South and Bainbridge. Liz
McDermott from the Bats spent the night whining about H and some project she
was working on with Greg Foreman. I always thought Greg should be incarcerated
for aping Ron Wood. The party was memorable to me because Gaetan had a
bull-horn, and because his flat was on the second floor, we could harass
passers by with impunity. He used the line from "Naked Gun"-
"Please disperse, there is nothing to see here. Please disperse..."
It is not dying: where I
go when I close my eyes
& the world shuts in upon
itself & gives me the womb
of fear I need to forget fear.
Nothing shines but the light
at the end where I catch hold
of myself floating inward/
outward & I know how I
connect to the cosmos &
I am palpitating gently but
intensely & separations do
not exist except to point to
deeper unities of sperm & egg
& rhythm & motion & release
& fucking & what’s behind it
& loving & what’s behind it
& dying & what’s behind it
& the answer is nothing,
nothing at all, all or nothing,
at one, a tone, atone
During the This Charming Lab days, there was one tussle
between myself and Dan Baker over a girl. She was a blonde from the West Coast
named Tracy. Tracy lived at 4th and Lombard,
across from the Philly Java Company. One night, Dan and I got stuck at Tracy's apartment at the
same time. We both spent an hour and a half trying to get Tracy to signal for the other to leave.
Finally, she kicked us both out together for the arrival of her
"real" boyfriend, who was a sugar-daddy. When the same thing happened
between myself, Dan, and Genevieve Walsh, I won. Dan wasn't vindictive enough
to take his revenge- I was lucky.
In the summer of 2001, Gaetan and I went canoeing on the Delaware with a girl named
Kim. We stopped on all the little islands to smoke another bowl. By the time
the day was over, we could barely stand up. And the drive all the way from New Hope to CenterCity was a long one. Kim
drove, and we came within inches of being annihilated ten or eleven times. Yet,
I was infected enough by Gaetan's laissez faire mood that I couldn't have cared
less. The psyhology of the mood was simple- if you believe in life, you won't
One night during the heyday of the PhillyFreeSchool, Mike Land and I
dropped acid at my flat at 21st and Race. We eventually migrated to the
basement of the Last Drop at 13th and Pine. From there, we decided to drop in
on Jen Cho, who lived on Lombard. I was
holding my own, and Mike appeared to be too. Jen was having her U of Delaware
crew over. We decided impulsively to smoke up with them. I was in a miasma but
could at least function well enough to talk; Mike became catatonic and was
rocking back and forth in his chair. I had to wheel him out of there.
Gaetan had a girlfriend in the Free School days named
Anastasia. She was a wild child. At one of the FreeSchool
shows, she got more than halfway towards jumping out of one of the windows.
Melissa and the rest of Gaetan's crew (the Peek-a-Boo Revue crowd) had to drag
her back in. That was the night we were bombarded with teenagers from the
'burbs sneaking in. It was so chaotic we couldn't stop them- whoever was
supposed to be working the door was AWOL. So, what did we do? We at least put
away the nitrous tanks.
There was only one night that Mike and I invaded the Bad
News Bats' compound. Liz was on a Bukka White kick, so he was blasting. She was
also having a screaming fight with someone. We helped the Bats carry their gear
over to Tritone at 16th and South. This was during the "Abby era" of
the Bats, when the surf-punk emo scum-rock was shot through with more melody
and polish. By the time they took the stage (and as was often the case) they
and their whole audience were wild and drunken. Liz always set this tone.
On New Years 2007, I took Matt Stevenson to a party in
South Philly thrown by the U Mass Amherst poets. They were a dainty crew, and
Matt started picking on them instantly. We found ourselves at a bar in Northern
Liberties, and Matt didn't particularly ease up. It was warm- Nick Moudry and I
decided to hike it back to Fairmount/ Logan
Square on foot. When Matt Stevenson got into a cab
with Laura Solomon, he leered lecherously, and I was sorry not to be a fly on
the wall. I later found out he got nowhere, as if I couldn't have guessed.
During the days when Dawn Ananda Hulton and the Nooses were playing Free School shows, I went out
drinking one night with Dawn at Dirty Frank's. She had no way of getting home.
I took a cab with her, for $35, back to Upper Darby.
I expected to be ushered into her bed. Instead, she had me crash downstairs on
a couch in her living room. Meanwhile, upstairs, she had a screaming row with
her Mom. At a certain point, I heard her Mom coming down the stairs. I was
scared and intimidated. Pulling a move out of Judy Blume, I pulled the
comforter over my head so as not to face her. I heard footsteps come up to the
couch and stop. A few seconds passed. Then, she strode past me towards the
kitchen. That was the weekend Dawn played me a big chunk of Wire for the first
At one point in the early Aughts, I formed a Peter, Paul,
and Mary folk-rock band with Mary and Abby. The songs I wrote for the band were
folk-noir. One of them was called "She Slit Her Wrists." We went so
far as to play one show, upstairs at the old Book Trader on South Street. When Abby broke up the
band, it was because she didn't want to play George Harrison, and decided her
songs were as good as mine.
In 2005, I recorded half an album's worth of demos with
Gaetan Spurgin. Gaetan's studio at 13th and Carpenter was as Philly noir as it
could be. One afternoon, Gaetan and ElektroWorx were mixing their own album and
I happened to be there. Everything was being cranked through the main studio
speakers. Two girls, Pia and someone else, were collapsed and asleep in each
other's arms right up against the blaring speakers. By that time, I was used to
such sights there. And to getting flu symptoms from smoking their pot.
I only ever jammed with Greg Foreman once, in the early
Aughts. I played him "Darkyr Sooner," and he played me some of his
solo material. He also talked about meeting Ian McLagan and Keith Richards.
Greg was very tight with Dawn Ananda Hulton at one point. When I heard that
he'd joined Chan Marshall's band, I wasn't surprised. I always thought Chan and
Dawn Ananda were very similar as songwriters. "Dawn Ananda and Chan Ananda,"
I called them. The last night I spent with Dawn Ananda Hulton, in 2010, she was
up to drinking a six-pack for breakfast.
Harmony and integrity between the body and the soul: that is the Grecian ideal. I mean the Greece of Plato, Aristotle, and the like. What John Keats taps into in his odal cycle is a desire to re-invigorate this ideal with a new series of assignations and associations. What his Muse, Psyche, is supposed to engender, both in his own psyche as he writes and in his assumed audience, is a sense of complete, all-absorptive arousal- cognitive and physical arousal at the same time. The ideas which animate Psyche as a presence for Keats- innocence, virginity, purity, piety-in-Nature and Natural processes/forces, are arousing for a brain looking to recreate these ideas as a basis for cognitive satisfaction/euphoria; while Psyche, being physically attractive, is also straightforwardly sexually arousing to him and his audience, in the odal manner of being passionate, spontaneous, or (to be a little flippant) "mad for it." Where this created integrity between body and soul leads, in its ideal form, is into the achievement (as I have said) of an apotheosis of artistic form- Keats' prosody.
Why "apotheosis" aesthetic forms are important to bring back, as manifestations of Grecian or Romantic ideals of harmony between body and soul, is very simple- to restore the natural, healthy vigor of pursuing stimulation and satisfaction in major high art consonant art. The perversion and denigration which was foisted on high art in the twentieth century made clear that "pleasure" was no longer to be drawn from its products, just as it is ludicrous to think that a walk through MOMA could "please" anyone profoundly or in an indigenous way. The likes of John Ashbery and Barnett Newman are not there to "please" anyone, and whatever subterranean force placed them in an elevated position did not have in mind (it seems to me) any ideals at all. Being pleased by high art, and seeking to unify the body and soul, or, as a slight tangent, inside the mind and outside the mind, are good ideas, and when a formal apotheosis is attained by an artist, it is also a decent idea to derive as much physical or cognitive ecstasy from it as you possibly can. High art is supposed to be fun too- demanding fun, rigorous fun, cognitively engaged fun, but fun nonetheless. The companionable quality of the Odes are fun, indeed- and that we have bodies and souls which, if drawn into the right alignment, give us access to higher frequencies of thought and feeling, are one subtext of the Odes which throws out the baby with the bath-water if unacknowledged.
Keats clearly meant the Odes to be a rite of passage for his readers; a marriage or consummation of some sort. Because Keats makes a fetish of Eros and Psyche, and the sense Psyche has of being (before Eros) a virgin or ingenue, one subtext I derive from the odal experience is that Keats' prosodic genius is meant to "deflower" the consciousness of his readers, de-virginize it into a more suitably experienced-in-aesthetic-euphoria form. As with Shelley and Adonais, the perceived androgyny of the Odal scribe, the admixture of male and female elements which have sharpened and refined his Odal vision into cohesive form, are to be met by the androgyny of his readers, who can both withstand his linguistic thrusts and propel themselves into line with the masculine levels of the melopoeia built into the Odal edifices. The sense of cognitive ravishment works in a chiasmic way here- from us into the prosody, and from the momentary, serendipitous nature of Keats' lyrical genius back to us, as the loops back and forth endlessly replay every time we participate in an inspired reading of the Odes. We become ingenues or Psyches before this mode/manner of formal beauty, and we do so willingly, rewarded in a different way each time so as to suggest a kind of textual eternity channeled through Keats into texts which combine human and celestial essences against the confines of the material, and in a manner more companionable than Shelley tends to be.
When John Keats hits these notes in this order in the fourth stanza of Nightingale:
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards...
I have the feeling that, as an incisive point to make against his self-diagnosis, his cognitive functioning has actually reached a rather peerless apogee. This is not just on prosodic levels, but with the realization that the most solid path to a euphoric state of consciousness is the pursuit of a certain manner/form of textuality itself. This contradiction- the sunken brain really manifesting the elevated or "apogee" one- is something which comes up (sideways) in Apparition Poem 1613, one subtext of which delineates the process by which spiritual elevation is attained through surmounting a hill "constituted by kinds of knives." A tangent metaphysics point to 1613 is that when one is climbing this knife-hill, one may feel themselves falling backward even during their ascension, so that even upwardly mobile movements seem to invert themselves. This cognitive confusion- ascendant consciousness feeling itself (falsely) to be descending, through the sharpness and bizarre configuration of the kinds of knives complicating cognitive movements- is where Keats is at in this fourth stanza. The "dull brain" is the razor-sharp one; what's perplexed and retarded is that this sharpened brain is blinded to its own ascension by the cognitive dissonance of extreme psycho-spiritual anguish, which mystifies consciousness into confusion, irresolution, and self-abnegation, even as Keats unknowingly creates the ideal stage for his prosodic effects.
(Originally published as a comment on the Facebook of Welsh poet Brett Evans, co-founder and co-editor of independent literary journal, Prole. Also published at the Irish Poetry Blog.) *** Although
he later deleted and blocked me from his Facebook for not agreeing with
him that Carol Hughes was somehow awf for not allowing a biographer
access to all her dead husband's papers; the best advice I ever got was
from Bloodaxe Books founder and Editor, Neil Astley; in Conway's pub on Parnell Street, Dublin, after the
joint launch at the Irish Writer's Centre, of the Selina Guinness edited
New Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2004) and Leanne O'Sullivan's debut, Waiting
for my Clothes (Bloodaxe, 2004).
At that time, I think in September 2004, I had recently graduated in May of the same year, from my home town Edge Hill University (Writing Studies and Drama, 2:1) and had been living in the Iveagh homeless hostel in Dublin for three months.
a short several minute chat he advised me to get out and recite live in
public as much as possible; and that the biggest mistake people make is
sending out a collection of poems for consideration before they are
ready, and that they should first build up writing experience,
publishing credits in magazines, and work work work, write, write,
write, and wait, wait, wait until they've enough experience and what
that time I'd been writing for three years and my conception of what
poetry and Publishing was all about was very different to what it is
now, because I had very little experience of writing or publishing and
viewed the process thru the lens of the novice, at best at bardic grade
two (of seven) MacFirmid (son of composition) thinking that becoming a
published poet was a semi-mystical process similar to that of finding
fame as an actor; in that it was all very opaque and mysterious.
poems would be spotted by a fairy godfather of poetry publishing who'd
take me under their wing and do all the hard work and all I'd have to do
is show up and star reciting (at that time only from memory) the poetry
I'd accumulated on the page up to that time.
think just meeting and getting the real gen from one of Britain's most
knowledgeable independent poetry publishers was in itself a very
valuable lesson, because for the first time I'd spoken with someone at
the top of the tree and the whole thing had been humanised and I was
imparted something no amount of reading about publishing could ever do.
that point I had been methodically sending out poems for about a year,
beginning sending out in the third year of the writing and drama course,
and getting published here and there. In that short time what struck me
is that you'd never know what an editor would want to publish. Stuff
you thought strong was not picked and poems you thought had no chance
the spring of the following year I lost all interest in seeing my poems
published in small magazines, and playing what I increasingly viewed as
a psychological game of submit-reject/accept, in which the submitter is
seeking affirmation and validation for what can often be a lonely and
unrewarded business of writing poems for the purpose of seeing them
published by others in the mags they edit.
I was having a good publication hit rate I was increasingly bored with
the novelty of seeing my poems and name published in small circulation
magazines. A short sugar high followed by business as normal and a
return to writing and studying the mass of Irish mythology that makes up
much of the bardic curriculum.
that at that point was still a voluminous sprawl of confusion, the
skeleton of the poetic that came around year five/six, still yet to firm
up and appear in the mind. And so in a very real way, trusting that by
just studying the material on the fourteen year course would in itself
reveal what I hoped to find.
because of my thoughts about the future of publishing in the online
age, at that time the consensus still very much an old-guard gate-keeper
mindset, was beginning to view the process of submit-accept/reject as a
redundant one, in which both sides are seeking affirmation in what
vision of poetry we have and what we are doing, for the purpose of
accumulating and increasing our sense of contemporary poetic relevance
and (minor) cultural importance.
is because some editors would write back rejecting what I'd submitted,
not with a simple, thanks but no thanks, but a note that made it plain
that, on their part, they were playing a different game with themselves
to the one I was, making their intellectual confusion unintentionally
comedically plain in pretend pretentious toff voices not their own.
own thoughts where that in the near future (ie, now) we would all
effectively be publishers on an equal footing able to reach anyone in
the world with an internet connection, and so, I reasoned, the thing to
concentrate on was not getting published by other people, but cleaving
to the idea that I was a student with ten years learning the material
from the fourteen year writing course that trained forty generation of
filidh poets, and trusting in that process to teach and deliver the
lessons and experience with which to publish one's own writing on my own
terms when the time was right. Knowing I had another ten years as a
student, a decade before I'd need to publish anything, meant I felt zero
pressure to get published, even though for most this would be a
laughingly far too long time to try oneself out having a crack at the
aul poetry game.
I was very lucky to have had the first three years of my writing life occur at home in Ormskirk bygone times,
in the very best and most supportive place it was possible to evolve
creatively and intellectually, and without which I would perhaps not
have been laughing at the amadán poetry editors up their own holes we
all know and are familiar with from experience, but getting depressed by
their exclusionary spirit and sense of being custodians of only the
most special and greatest English poetry that appears between the pages
of the few hundred copies of their rags.
this is not the reason I lost all interest in playing the
submit-reject/accept game. The final nail in the coffin that sealed the
deal and made all interest evaporate, was chancing across online,
Washington state Ogham expert Erynn Rowan Laurie's English translation
of a 120 line 7C Old Irish text, that states an in-depth and
comprehensive definition of what poetry is, where it comes from, and how
it works, 'in the body and soul of a person.'
a druidic voice from the earliest founding mythological bard of
literate Ireland, Milesian poet Amergin. It is one of only four
attributed to this figure and three times longer than the next longest
piece, a riddling roscanna poem he is most well known for, Song of
Ireland, that Aul Plumdoon Muldoon made an entire Oxford lecture of
punning allusive gobbledegook prose in response to.
was the druid of the seventh, and chronologically final, mythological
race of 'takers' of the island documented in the 11C Lebor Gabála Érenn,
the Book of the Takings of Ireland, who, with his surviving (of twelve)
two brothers, Eber and Eremon, had seized the island from the Tuatha De
Danann, in 1300 BC according to Geoffrey Keating's, or 1700 BC
according to the Four Masters' version of mythological history, both
compiled in the early to middle 17C.
untitled Old Irish text is found in the medieval Book of Ballymote, and
was first translated into English in 1979 by Professor Liam Breatnach
of the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies,
one of Ireland's premier Old and Middle Irish experts, with a deep
knowledge of the texts that make up the fourteen year filidh (poets)
curriculum, having translated such important pieces as Uraicecht na
Ríar: The poetic grades in early Irish law, and numerous other bardic
now known, due to the triple-cauldron imagary used as a metaphor to
explain how poetry works in a person, as Cauldron of Poesy, the text
didn't have or need a title in its original form because, I suspect, it
was one of the most widely known and first texts introduced to a grade
one foclo turning up on the first day of singing school at Samhain, to
begin the six month Samhain to Beltaine winter semester, that over the
following twelve to fourteen years led through another five grades,
MacFirmid (son of composition), Dos (bushy-tree shelterer), Cano
(cub/whelp), Cli (ridgepole), Anruth (great stream), before terminating
at the apical grade of Ollamh (ullav) Doctor of Poetry.
which point they were the equivalent of a secular poet-barrister
practicing in the highest forms of strict and straight (dán direach)
verse, that they were introduced to only at the sixth grade Anruth,
around year six/seven; as it needed six years of study before they'd be
competent to tackle the head-wrecking complexity of the fourteen or so
dán direch meters and work out if the prophetic, mantric side that set a
fully formed fíli poet apart from the lower grades, was there and
that point I was on a roll publishing wise, and was playing the game
like everyone else. Living in the Iveagh homeless hostel and centering
myself on acquiring experience and a live skin, out two or three times a
week on the thriving closed and open-mic scene in Dublin during the
height of Bertie Ahern's time in office, when, it has to be noted, the
collective Irish cultural mood was right up itself, ostentatious and one
of nouveau riche smugly delusional optimism that the economic good
times were here forever, and that Irish people generally were a very
special sort of precious English language snowflake, and the chosen few
blessed with an invincible sort of otherworldly speaking magic, that, as
we discovered on the morning Brian Lenihan (rip) made the announcement
of the Bank Guarantee he laughably stated would be 'the cheapest in
history' - was subsequently proved by events to be a crock of
self-delusional sales crap everyone had swallowed hook line and sinker.
the time of discovering it I was in my 'office', an internet sweet shop
at the foot of Ha'penny Bridge on Aston Quay, and I remember thinking
at the time that I was reading for the first time one of the most
important bardic texts written. A belief that has only deepened in the
had just had a poem and prose piece about the live poetry scene in
Dublin published on the website of the Galway Arts Centre, and it was
with this publishing credit that I lost all interest in sending out
anymore, buzzing with the belief that my writing needed no more outside
validation, just at the very point the untitled 7C Amergin text popped
up on my computer screen at Aston Quay.
it for the first time I instinctively knew that this was a textual
guide one needed to progress in writing without any input or
intellectual validation from others, not least because few, if any,
poetry editors are aware of it to know that there exists a holy grail of
Gaelic poetry as important as Horace's Ars Poetica.
suspicion confirmed when I began publicising the find around the
English speaking world to a wall of complete ambivalence, disinterest,
and non-engagement, confirming what I thought then and now know; that
many people are not into writing poetry to write the best poems we can,
but to see our name in lights and on longlists.
having got on the nerves and displeased a very long list of
self-important poetry folk around the English speaking world, always for
something very petty (the straw that broke the back of British-Hungarian poet George Szirtes'
tolerance, replying to his question of how I knew something, 'because I
don't spend all my time on Facebook'), I am in a way unintentionally
lucky to have stopped sending out when I did, because though I am
sitting on fourteen years of unpublished material, I have observed other
people trying to get work out there, usually with something interesting
to say on the page in prose, who have got on the wrong side of
important editors for displeasing them over something very petty and
minor, that the pasha-editors then trash and contextualise as being just
bitter failures because they had a manuscript rejected by them.
Anyway leave it there, globble di baglady de dye doi dough...(am hearing this as i hit send) KTF!