Thursday, November 29, 2007 48 Comments

Tryfon Tolides: an almost pure empty poetry

There are many reasons to respect the New Deal state, and many reasons to despise it. I'm afraid for the former, you'll have to go elsewhere. For I am a hater.

(Recently I found myself, albeit in conversation with someone I dislike almost as much as the New Deal state, describing UR as a "neofascist hate blog." I am not endorsing this label, of course. But I'm sure some would.)

It is impossible to count the New Deal's crimes. The list must include everything short of mass murder. And even that is arguable. And what is crime, really, at the hands of the State? Is there really a higher law? Is the concept even meaningful? Who shall pass sentence?

So I hope you won't accuse me of a failure of proportion when I say that, of all its crimes, the most despicable is the way the New Deal state seduced, devoured and destroyed the arts.

Conrad Roth and I have a little disagreement over the fate of the Western university. He believes that Western academic humanism, though definitely diseased, is not beyond repair. I believe that the entire Western university system needs to be crushed, broken, pulverized, autoclaved, autoclaved again, thermally depolymerized, mixed with radioactive strontium, and shot into the Sun. That is, if the Sun can handle it. If it starts developing huge festering brown spots after ten or twenty years, we'll know we should have gone with the Oort Cloud instead.

Science, of course, cannot settle this debate. Mere anecdote is our only recourse. So please allow me to present: An Almost Pure Empty Walking, by one Tryfon Tolides.

Please do not click these links. There is nothing interesting behind them. Instead, let's have a look at the cover of Mr. Tolides' book:

Attractive, ain't it?

I hasten to note that no one could possibly consider An Almost Pure Empty Walking a major work. In fact, it is unusually bad. But it is not atypically bad. And its badness has a kind of Platonic simplicity to it - an almost pure empty badness - that will help us, I feel, in the ugly work of diagnosis that lies ahead.

But do note that An Almost Pure Empty Walking comes to us from a major publisher, Penguin. Note also that it is a winner of the National Poetry Series, "selected by Mary Karr."

What does this mean? We'll see in a moment. But first, let's dive right in, with a randomly (I swear to God) selected poem. From page 23:

Because of the morning bird singing,
song will persist inside me.
Because of the sound of traffic,
I will always wonder,
and I shall be troubled at what remains
Unknown. But I shall hope. And because of the mailbox,
and the road, and the tree. It is hard to despair
because of the tree. Slowly, we turn toward love.
What can one say about this poem? "Slowly, we turn toward love." I feel this should be uttered with a rich, caressing NPR diction, as if one were, say, John Hockenberry. "This is John Hockenberry, for National Public Radio. Slowly, we turn toward love."

As Mrs. Moldbug put it, "this is the kind of poem I was writing in 4th grade." Let's try another:

I pick strawberries in the garden. Three long rows
behind the monastery, before the midday sun gets too hot.
I set down a stool every few yards and reach out
my hands, first for what is visible, then shake
and lift the leaves for fruit and color.
With a slight pull, I test each berry's readiness
for being plucked, having found
my rhythm in the field. All morning
I fill a blue crate, carry it to the refectory, then rest
in my cell to the sound of cicadas and flies
through the open window.
The evening dessert is red glistening strawberries,
piled onto shining metal plates, next to glasses
of wine, vases of water, whole tomatoes,
bean soup, fresh bread, olives: others' work,
all set on a common table.
Afterward, from high on the balcony, the Aegean
ripples with infinite small lights, the trees
of the mountain move like the sea, the air brings
a mixed scent of pine and iodine and night.
Beauty is more evident in this quiet. You see it
through a clearing inside yourself. It is no mystery, seeing.
"It is no mystery, seeing." But this poem, while certainly no less banal, is at least longer. And we can start to see some of the gears inside the Tolides poetry juggernaut.

First, obviously, the author is Greek. As such he gets to write about Greek stuff. Greekitude. Mrs. Moldbug, proud holder of an MFA from this institution, has a good term: "race opera." While Dienekes and Arthur Kemp may still be debating the eternal question of whether Greeks are white (and what about Eyetalians?), Tolides delivers a resounding vote for the negative.

Imagine if you were from Virginia, and you wrote a poem in this style about climbing Stone Mountain. Or about your plebe year at VMI - before it was girlified. (Unlike Mount Athos.) Now that would be some real "race opera." But somehow I doubt Penguin would print it.

As a kid I lived in Cyprus for a couple of years, and let me tell you - Greek nationalism is the worst. It's a serious plague. For example, in one of the main squares of Nicosia, there's a statue which depicts a man throwing a handgrenade. The man is EOKA terrorist Markos Drakos, and while I can't find a reference for this online, I was told that the target of his grenade was a schoolbus full of British children. Certainly not shocking by EOKA standards.

Besides sheer Balkan nastiness, the ugly nature of Greek nationalism probably has a lot to do with its roots in the 1820s. This was the first major outbreak of romantic nationalism after the Napoleonic wars, attracting the support of proto-Che Guevara types like Byron (who it killed) and Shelley (who it probably should have killed). All the outlines of modern Third World anticolonialism are visible in this conflict, which lost none of its demonic energy over the next 150 years. The Greeks do seem to have chilled out a little lately, but who knows? It was Orwell who told us to "trust a snake before a Jew, and a Jew before a Greek," and I certainly see no reason to contradict him. (Snakes, in fact, are quite trustworthy.)

Anyway. This is a poetry review, not another racist rant. My point is that Arendt really was onto something when she drew that link between banality and evil. Tolides, with his mild Greek race-opera ethnokitsch, certainly does not intend the reader to free-associate in the direction of hand-grenades and schoolbuses. But if he was German rather than Greek, would he go there? Would he wax all dreamy about the Teutoburger Wald? Somehow I doubt it. And if I was in the room, I would tell him to stop. That makes one of us who treats all cultures as equal, and it ain't him.

But let's get back to the poem. Note that "From Mount Athos" has three clear parts. Part three is the last two lines. Part two is the four lines before those. Part one is everything else.

Try a little experiment, and see what the poem looks like with just parts one and two. Scroll back up and put your finger over the screen, or something, to cover the last two lines.

It's better, isn't it? It's definitely better. That little cringe moment has been removed. And now the poem is just...

Well, it's just empty. It really is a pure empty poetry. It has no content at all. All that's left is a kind of greeting-card prettiness. Our speaker is an American tourist on vacation. He has gone to stay at a monastery and spend a day as an ersatz, Marie-Antoinette farmworker. Everything feels fresh, new and real to him, just as it probably did to Marie Antoinette, when she was milking those cows in the stable at Versailles. Anyone can have the same experience as our speaker, unless of course anyone is a woman. In which case she can just rent a basket at Knott's Berry Farm, or something.

Have you ever been in a traditional Middle American home? The kind that might have, say, a crocheted angel in the bathroom? And a lot of oak, and maybe some Hummel figurines?

To you, it might feel stifling, tacky, and a little frightening. But to whoever lives there, it feels comfortable and safe and, most of all, meaningful. Which is why they decorated their house that way. No one engaged in kitsch thinks of it as kitsch. It is always profound and true.

Perhaps you have had the misfortune to attend a poetry reading. At least in many places, such as Berkeley, there is a sort of convention for those in the audience who feel moved by a poem. One does not clap (except at the end). But one can make a sort of noise that is somewhere between "oh," "ah," a sigh, and just an especially loud breath. "Ah, that was so nice," is the canonical response. (I myself often feel this way after an intense bowel movement.)

The type of poetry that Tolides writes - comprising at least 90% of the vast colonic output of the US poetry industry, the other 9.9% finding some completely different road to awfulness - is essentially the crocheted angel or Hummel figurine for the NPR market. (Note that NPR's ratings are skyrocketing.)

To the discerning UR reader, it may read as banal. But the UR reader is a very special cat. He or she is someone who understands Universalism enough to reject it. Perhaps you didn't, like me, grow up listening to NPR, but you surely have felt the call at one point or another.

Do you ever go to Starbucks? Perhaps you've seen the banal little messages they print on their coffee cups. Every last one of them is pure, orthodox Universalism. If I was still in college, I'd probably be trying to figure out how to make a batch of Starbucks cups that say
"Trust a snake before a Jew and a Jew before a Greek, but don't trust an Armenian."
- George Orwell
and slip them in behind the register. But sadly, I am now too mature for this.

Mrs. Moldbug once explained a terribly useful concept to me: the idea of Seventeen magazine. The point of Seventeen is that it's not for 17-year-olds. It's for 14-year-olds. As they say in the marketing department, it's aspirational.

Starbucks, similarly, is aspirational. If you're anyone who's anyone and you live in San Francisco or Berkeley, you will not set foot inside a Starbucks. (I once had this horrible fat hippie woman tell me this at a party. She was boasting that never once, in her entire life, had she patronized Starbucks. I couldn't help but be impressed.) No, if you are a proper Bay Area Brahmin, you go to Peet's, which costs about 10% more and really does have better coffee. Or, better yet, you go to an actual independent local cafe, which certainly sells "fair-trade" coffee and probably has some kind of Communist revolutionary theme. (My first date with Mrs. Moldbug was at the now-deceased Cafe Macondo, which was basically a shrine to Patrice Lumumba.)

The point of Starbucks is that it allows an enormous slice of America, a slice certainly far bigger than the 20% or so who can actually claim to be Brahmins, to feel like they are part of the ruling class for 15 minutes or so. Perhaps it is different in Omaha, but what you see when you go into a Starbucks in SF is Vaisyas, Vaisyas, Vaisyas. Good ordinary people, who get to pay $3 for a pretty good coffee, and feel like they went to Harvard and work for a nonprofit.

And this, in a very similar sense, is the point of "almost pure empty poetry." The goal of the poem is to make the reader feel like a person who reads poetry. The "ah" is an essentially narcissistic vibration. It says, "ah, yes, me. I have just listened to and enjoyed a poem. I am the sort of person who listens to and enjoys poetry."

The tactics by which the almost-pure-empty poem achieves this effect are also fascinating. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the entire school is derivative of this one poem by William Carlos Williams. Williams was certainly a great and The Red Wheelbarrow is not at all unworthy of the attention it has received. But this note has been replayed so often that it's about as easy to appreciate in a pure aesthetic sense as, say, Norwegian Wood.

The problem of the almost-pure-empty poem is simple. Its goal is to express a thought which is banal and sentimental, but still feels somehow slightly fresh. Its method is to remove almost all content from the verse, leaving just enough to suggest some banal, sentimental Universalist thought to a reader who, being trained in the art of reading and enjoying almost-pure-empty poetry, can insert it without the feeling of being forced to do so.

Let's revisit "From Mount Athos" one more time, and see how this trick works. This time, remove not just part three, but also part two - ie, the last six lines.

The result is completely flat and content-free. It does nothing at all. It doesn't even begin to work. It is not almost-pure-empty or even pure-empty, it is just empty. It's like someone's vacation email got screwed up by a Greek ISP and acquired a few extra line feeds.

As we've seen, the best version of the poem (still not very good, even for almost-pure-empty poetry) removes the unintentionally hilarious part three, but keeps this:
Afterward, from high on the balcony, the Aegean
ripples with infinite small lights, the trees
of the mountain move like the sea, the air brings
a mixed scent of pine and iodine and night.
Now, is this good? I'm not sure I would go that far. But it is serviceable. As the poetic hook for an almost-pure-empty poem, it will do. It conveys a vague sensation of languorous, melancholy tourism, perhaps mixed with an ouzo or three. Pretty much how everyone wants to feel on their Greek vacation. (Note that that the speaker is alone, on his balcony, with the Aegean, and the pine, and the night. Ie, there are no yelling purse-snatchers on mopeds. No six-year-old Gypsy pickpockets. No one is even trying to sell him anything. He is just sitting there, with his ouzo, contemplating the delightful vision of a Greece without Greeks.)

But part three pushes it too far. It is, frankly, amateurish. It supplies the actual thought, which is just as banal and sentimental as you'd expect. We'd do far better to pile Pelion on Ossa, and graft it onto "The Tree":

Because of the morning bird singing,
song will persist inside me.
Because of the sound of traffic,
I will always wonder,
and I shall be troubled at what remains
Unknown. But I shall hope. And because of the mailbox,
and the road, and the tree. It is hard to despair
because of the tree. Slowly, we turn toward love.
Beauty is more evident in this quiet. You see it
through a clearing inside yourself. It is no mystery, seeing.
Now that is a poem. "It is no mystery, seeing." I think I speak for all when I say, "ah."

But forgetting the banality of evil for a moment, it's pretty hard for anything in the verse department to match the banality of blurb. It's not quite readable in the GIF I made, so here's what's on the back cover:
In his debut collection, chosen by Mary Karr as a winner of the 2005 National Poetry Series, Tryfon Tolides weaves together poems that speak of desire, loss, and small boys. Tolides was born in a tiny village in Greece and his work is rooted in the mountains and the wind and the deep interior of that place; his poems express a longing and a searching for peace, for home, for beauty, for escape. These poems constitute a lament, whether they concern themselves with the difficulties of assimilation or the question of whether it is possible for people to live with another in a spirit of true understanding. They prove that the physical and the metaphysical can share residence, can even be one and the same.
Okay, it's "small joys," not "small boys." I just felt I had to add something to get you through that. You might think that Tolides can't be blamed for the blurb, since it is the publisher's responsibility, but in fact he almost certainly wrote it himself. If he didn't, he certainly had signoff. Isn't that terrible? Isn't it just the most awful thing?

And what is this "chosen by Mary Karr?" Again? Well, here is the interesting part. Inside the book, we see the usual acknowledgment page, on which is written:
Thanks to my teachers: Edward Ifkovic, Steve Straight, Elizabeth Cooke, Alice Bloom, Wes McNair, Dan Gunn, Pat O'Donnel, Brooks Haxton, Michael Burkard, Bob Gates, and Mary Karr.
This man has had more poetry teachers than some of us have had sex partners. (Hopefully this list does not overlap.) On the previous page, we see what they say about him:
"Because he sees with the humility of a searching heart, on the path to the spring in the village where he was born, on his pizza delivery route in small-town USA, Tryfon Tolides sees us as we are, as souls on pilgrimage to the world. The depth of this attention makes his poems not just confessions of the skill of his extraordinary mind, but revelations of the consequence of being."

- Brooks Haxton
Revelations of the consequence of being! And I like "souls on pilgrimage to the world," as well. You don't get more Universalist Starbucks-motto than this.
"How he surprises us – this young Greek poet – again and again in these brilliant, Chaplinesque, Zen-soaked, Vermeer-like cameos, craftily echoing Cavafy and William Carlos Williams and Gilbert and others. In the things of this world, which we so often fail to notice, Tolides finds worlds within words, pulling them out of his gypsy bag and holding them up to the light like the tiny diamonds they are, one after the other: the door, the dogs, the barbed wire fence, the dying mother, the holy air. This is his first book and already he has managed to stake out himself – and for us – a brand new, ancient, brave new world."

- Paul Mariani
Mariani is not listed as a teacher of Tolides. He is probably a teacher of one of the teachers - a sort of capo di tutti capi. I think I have his Hart Crane biography somewhere. I'll have to make sure I get it out of the house, before it breeds.

And then, of course:
"Tryfon Tolides has followed the territory set out in his native Greece by C. P. Cavafy and later followed (in geography and sensibility) by Jack Gilbert. But Tolides trades the darkness of those poets for a more illuminated grandeur. Tolides is the shaman of epiphany. He makes for his reader keen and particular moments of revelation seized from his fierce and fleshly occupancy on the planet. In the wide-eyed consolation these poems offer up, the starlight they emit, he conjures Tomas Tranströmer and other poets of profound spiritual power. At a time when the planet is in flames, he gives being human a good name."

- Mary Karr
Here at UR, we do our damnedest to give being human a bad name. But one must sometimes emit a little starlight, and I do have to marvel at the gall of mentioning Cavafy in the same breath as this two-bit hack, this perma-student, this droning and gelatinous bore. (Yes, the poems I have quoted really are typical. Here is another one. I'm afraid I can indeed think of "something after that." Maybe it should be the Oort Cloud, after all - you can't be too safe.)
However, this is not the limit of Ms. Karr's gall. Because what has she done? Serving as a judge, or at least meta-judge (I'm sure she did not actually comb through the slushpile herself), in a contest open to the public with a $30 submission fee, receiving God only knows how many entries, from aspiring poets all over America if not the world, men and women who slaved over their little precious gems, most of which I'm sure were awful, many of which I'm sure were quite a bit more competent than "The Tree," she has cut the Gordian knot by selecting one of her own students.

Believe it or not, this is actually quite a common practice. (Indeed, Tolides and Karr were officially nailed on this very site.) I'm sure that in the last year or two, if nothing else as the result of the Times story, some rules have been revised.

But this is a little like finding a pubic hair in your soup. "Waiter," you say, "there's a pube in my soup." Your waiter comes over and inspects. "Indeed," he says. And fishes out the hair. "Sorry about that. Enjoy your meal, folks."

Note that there is absolutely no shame in the way Karr, Tolides or Penguin handled this blatant conflict of interest. Deleting Karr's name from the acknowledgments would have been trivial. If it wasn't done, it was only because no one thought they were doing anything wrong.

How do you think moral compromise happens? Sometimes one person decides to do something appallingly, flagrantly corrupt. (Note how well the corruption of poetry fits my general theory - the National Poetry Series is, indeed, not what it appears to be.) But more often, what happens is a general decline in ethical standards across an entire field of human endeavor. Typically driven by a "race to the bottom" in which only the unscrupulous survive.

Now we can fit our pieces together, and look at how the New Deal destroyed poetry.

Poetry is an industry. It has always been an industry. It is something that people do. Writing poetry is work. You may be paid for this work in money, or you may be paid in the esteem of your peers, or you may be paid only in your own satisfaction. But you are paid.

Before the New Deal, poets were paid either in the esteem of their peers, or in book royalties. To say that poetry as a consumer business worked perfectly would be wrong. For most of the 19th century, the public's taste in verse was - at least by my standards - lamentable. Your mileage may vary, but I am simply unable to process any poetry written in the 19th century, except for freaks like Emily Dickinson. When I look at, say, James Russell Lowell or Tennyson or even Swinburne, I wonder how anyone slogged through this kitsch, these dreadful archaisms and Romantic artifice. (Of course, I'm quite confident that future generations will think the same of our NPR banalities, race-opera and refried surrealism.)

Certainly the best poetry of the 20th century was written from the '20s through the mid-'60s. These poets - I am particularly fond of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, etc - sometimes did reasonably well in the sales department, but they were invariably of a highly critical and negative disposition, and peer esteem was their real currency.

In the '60s, though, something awful happened. Poetry became a Federal jobs program. To use the terminology from my theory of corruption, it became a form of edupatronage.

The great disaster was the enormous expansion of higher education in the '60s and '70s. There is a reason so many college campuses have that abominable Brutalist architecture. Almost everyone who went through this gigantic, state-sponsored indoctrination machine had no reason at all to be there (please allow me to introduce you to Albert Jay Nock). They were there to be promoted in social class, perhaps also to avoid the draft. They were certainly not acquiring either vocational skills or wisdom and perspective. And nor are they still - certain areas of science and engineering, of course, excepted.

The overwhelming force behind this expansion was a massive injection of Federal subsidies. (Of course this was the Great Society rather than the New Deal proper - I hope you'll excuse me for seeing the whole as a single, gigantic, 75-year-old octopus.) Education, for New Deal Democrats, is just like immigration - a way of making more Democrats. Of course, no one thinks of it this way, but the machine works whatever its parts are thinking.

Here is the way poetry works now. The business is teaching. The currency is the book. Now that Tryfon Tolides has a book, and one published by Penguin at that (rather than, say, Dirt River Press), he can get a teaching job. His teacher, Karr, has "made" him. Just like Christopher Moltesanti.

(Hardly anyone will buy Tolides' book, for obvious reasons, but this does not matter at all. Except for Billy Collins, Jewel, etc, poetry is not an economically significant arm of the publishing industry. Major publishers, like Penguin, continue to produce it only because they would lose prestige if they shut it down. Poetry is like short stories - the only people who read it are people who write it.)

When I say "teaching job," of course I don't mean eighth grade. With a Penguin book, Tolides is qualified to teach creative writing anywhere that has an opening. Of course openings are scarce these days, because everyone with an IQ over 95 is going to college and the system simply cannot be expanded. The glory days of wild metastatic growth are long gone. The university is assuming its grim, Brezhnevian mature form.

And what has entirely disappeared, as the quotes above should make quite clear, is any sense of a mutually critical aristocratic elite. Instead, one ascends in the poetry world exactly the same way that one ascended in the Soviet intelligence services: by joining the right clique and remaining loyal to it. It is a pure pyramidal patronage system.

There is not even a concept of what it would mean to "succeed" outside this system. There is simply no independent pool of taste. There is only a vast river of books released by an endless stream of careerists. A consumer, even if he or she has the best taste in the world, will never, ever be able to filter this Ganges. Which is exactly why no one reads poetry anymore.

And worse, what these careerists seek is not even good filthy money. Teaching poetry is an abominable career. Unless you are ridiculously lucky, your students are subhuman morons, your pay is laughable, your prospect of tenure is nonexistent.

However, you are paid with something that no money can buy, the social status of poet. And no one - and I mean no one - in the world looks down on a "published poet." Whether it's men, women, poetry teachers, sheep or little Greek boys he prefers, Tryfon Tolides will always be able to get laid.

What a pathetic and contemptible system! These people are nothing but bureaucrats. And the situation is only getting worse. It's no surprise that degenerate tropes such as race opera, let alone these greeting-card banalities, flourish in the horrid Petri dish of the modern university. It is tailor-made for virulent Universalism of every sort. The more fanatical and banal your doggerel is, the easier it is to form alliances with other writers of banal, fanatical doggerel.

The blurbs I copied above remind me of nothing so much as the efficiency reports my father used to bring home from the State Department. Every one, if you read them literally, as if they just said what they meant in English, praised him as a sort of low-level Napoleon, a paragon of energy, discipline and effectiveness. Perhaps next year they would make him President, or at least a deputy secretary?

Then he would show me where the report was actually trying to rip him a new asshole, and ensure that he never got promoted ever again. Everyone's efficiency report looks like one of these blurbs. But those who know could tell the difference. I wonder if the same is true in the poetry world. Perhaps if Paul Mariani hadn't spent ten minutes curled up on the floor, just dying, shaking with massive spasms of uncontrollable hilarity, after reading "The Tree," he would have compared Tolides to Rembrandt or Michelangelo, instead of just Vermeer, and got him in as an adjunct at a good state college, none of this "community" crap.

And this is why no one even thought of thinking that it might look bad for Karr to select Tolides, and Tolides to thank Karr. It's because complaining about conflicts of interests in the poetry industry is like complaining about salacious language in a whorehouse. The entire industry is one giant conflict of interest - a classic self-licking ice-cream cone.

To be precise, the interest it serves is its own, and the interests it conflicts with are everyone else's. Because not even the students are served. Those who lack the talent to write poetry, which is of course almost all of them, are wasting at the very least their time and very likely a good bit of money as well. No one ever tells them this - it would be considered unethical. And as for those who do have talent, picture them instructed by one of these bloviating quacks, these bureaucrats of love, these revealers of the consequence of being.

No. I'm definitely thinking Oort Cloud here. We really can't be too sure.


Blogger Alrenous said...

"And what is crime, really, at the hands of the State? Is there really a higher law? Is the concept even meaningful? Who shall pass sentence?"

Mencius, do you post these little details just to mess with me? It's definitely working.

It's so tangential yet so ripe with potential.

Regarding the university I naturally agree with you so completely there's nothing further to say.

This post is about poetry, too. I liked it because while I thought I was a poetry philistine, I now know for a fact that an interpretation contest between me and a stump may very well go to the stump.

Yet the only thing I want to say is that crime is very easy to define.

First assume law is descriptive first and only prescriptive later - it's a list of things we all wish other people wouldn't do, like murder each other. It's also nice not to let people sell themselves into slavery.

Our laws are just so far as they fully realize this definition, and a crime is simply the violation of it.

As such, yes, states are guilty of innumerable crimes. The concept is meaningful, though of course if a sentence were passed there's no one who could enforce it.

November 29, 2007 at 6:16 AM  
Anonymous Randy said...

Right on about the performance reviews. I've had a few of those myself. My experience was in the military, but I suspect that your description of the poetry profession is precisely how every government buracracy works. I discovered early on that the way to get a good performance report is to change something. It doesn't have to be a change that is demonstrably better, and it doesn't matter if you're just changing it back to the way it was before your predecessor changed it, it just has to be a change. Because change is "progress" you see.

November 29, 2007 at 7:13 AM  
Blogger brendon said...

great post. however, your taste for lowell is baffling. anyway, philip larkin wrote an essay in required reading where he makes similar points (without the anti-new deal stuff) about how the academic-lecture-award circuit was going to destroy poetry. and of course it did. also, i've noticed from contemporary poets that it helps a lot to have a memorably strange name. tryfon tolides is alright, but he's no dan beachy-quick or the great mary jo bang.

November 29, 2007 at 7:39 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

An antiquarian bookseller I know has the best definition for this kind of work I have heard: "welfare poetry." In other words, it is the sort of thing that is published only because its author got a grant.

I hope that we may encourage the wider use of my friend's apt terminology to describe this burgeoning literary genre.

November 29, 2007 at 9:31 AM  
Blogger Black Sea said...

"No one engaged in kitsch thinks of it as kitsch. It is always profound and true."

I don't know how anyone who lives in San Francisco, given its defining demographic, can make this claim.

November 29, 2007 at 10:33 AM  
Blogger Gerard said...

Inspiring! Herewith my doggeral:

Castle Indolence
--for Tom Disch

Once I worked in projective verse,
But alas my work was for the worse.
Today I add scintilla of technique
Which, sprinkled in, reveals the scenes I seek.

Thoughts are easily clad in rime, it's true,
But some thoughts live when hidden from our view.
To offer rules that eviscerate tradition
Is freedom for a day, but for a life--perdition.

In workshops coast to coast, our poets sweat,
Renouncing honest doggerel and making bets
On who will win the laurels and be fully funded.
(At least ten grand a year, perhaps a hundred.)

To achieve this purloined prize, they teach the kids
To scrawl barbaric yawps on everything they did
And didn't do to Barbie or to Ken
The Night Before in rooms of manly men.

Such grades delivered are rightly pass or fail
Since all agree that any poem is off the scale
Of justice or of judgment ( "Fuck Tom Disch!"),
And is always just as good as is the poet's wish.

The other lessons taught in workshop hell
Are: "Rime is always bad and feelings swell!
Express yourself, young and toothsome student!
(But know that bending over is still prudent.)

"You see, in this strange game, we've got a rule
That states the poet comes before the school.
So please ignore Eliot and Stevens, even Dante,
To let feelings, a la Streisand, up the ante.

"By composing, from such sources, endless plaints,
You are allowed to shitcan meter's steel restraints,
And craft within our workshops shapeless blobs
That will sustain your feelings and our jobs."

What remedy remains for profs so sodden
With modest grants and laurels cheaply gotten?
There's no pretending that such men are poets pure,
For "once a bear is hooked on garbage there's no cure."

Our only hope is to accurately describe them
As mired in their muck. So woe betide them,
Should they hope to gain a lasting recognition,
Their very work will work for their derision.

The poem's not a path to some fat pension,
Nor like some hired hand releasing inner tension.
It requires nothing less than all the soul and mind,
And is, like love and Homer, always blind.

It is not made in workshops, whole or part,
But in the "rag and boneshop of the heart."
And those that cannot blindly see and sense
Must chained forever be in Castle Indolence.

All poetry is dreaming written clear
To the inner eye that wakes the sleeping ear.
You must listen to crushed silence, seeing only night,
If you would give your readers second sight.

November 29, 2007 at 10:47 AM  
Blogger Black Sea said...

"This man has had more poetry teachers than some of us have had sex partners. (Hopefully this list does not overlap.)"

Your hopes are almost certainly in vain.

"(1)Teaching poetry is an abominable career. Unless you are ridiculously lucky, (2) your students are subhuman morons, (3)your pay is laughable, (4)your prospect of tenure is nonexistent."

(1) Undoubtedly true
(2) Often true (subhuman is a little harsh, let's just say "sub-talented")
(3) Given how little is expected of you, the pay is actually obscene (in the positive sense)
(4) No worse than anybody else's

Since we're throwing doggerel around, here's my latest composition, insired by Mencius' "White Nationalist" post, and the ensuing race/creed war in the comments section.

It was originally published (I mean posted) over at TGGP's site, to a resounding silence (I think they're trying to be nice to me.)
In case your wondering, yes, it is meant to be satirical. And no, I am not an anti-semite.


The partial Jew’s a slippery fish
Who turns our trust against us.
He drains our blood
Into a silver dish,
Obeying the Creed of Mencius.

By passing as pure Saxon,
He conquers far and wide,
as each benighted faction,
bows to the “fractional” tribe.

Oh Sons of Odin,
warn your daughters,
beware his grim, false smile.
But should he proffer sufficient bride-geld
perhaps you’ll claim your own small pile.

The End

Your non-response will be most deeply appreciated (I have a poet's fragile soul), or, as Tryfon Tolides so eloquently put it, "Beauty is more evident in this quiet."

November 29, 2007 at 11:09 AM  
Blogger C. Van Carter said...

Why do these pseuds always mention berries and cicadas?

November 29, 2007 at 11:48 AM  
Blogger drank said...

I was glad that you clarified your stance from "The New Deal ruined the arts" to "The Great Society ruined the arts" as the post went along.

I really enjoyed Tyler Cowen's Good and Plenty, and he had a lot of thought-provoking things to say about arts funding. Surprisingly, the New Dealers did pretty well at it, mostly because they were willing to just hand some money to promising starving artists and let them do whatever they wanted. Much like being a VC, a lot of the ones funded were duds, but they had some real winners too. Current funding models, like the NEA, basically exist to fund low-risk art that is already somewhat recognized - just the kind of cultural Brezhnevism that you're denouncing in this post.

I do think that poetry has come off worse than other arts because there is virtually no audience for it outside of Bay-area coffee shops. Contemporary music and painting, to pick two examples, have suffered, but are not nearly the sterile wastelands that you depict in this post. Both enjoy regular public exhibitions (gallery walks, concerts) and thus are able to attract private patrons and fund themselves without having to suck exclusively at the State's teat.

November 29, 2007 at 12:34 PM  
Blogger Bruce G Charlton said...

This was a perfectly wonderful, vomit-inducingly-funny post. Thank you.

November 29, 2007 at 12:38 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

I didn't comment on your poem, black sea, because I'm not really into poetry and not fit to judge. I don't know about the rest of the readers, but I get so few a lack of response doesn't indicate much (others may take this as an invitation to visit). I liked it better than Tolide's though, if only because it was about a subject interesting enough for me to have wasted a lot of time yacking about it (plus it rhymed).

it's a list of things we all wish other people wouldn't do
"all" is a lot of people, and not everyone accepts the Kantian principle of the categorical imperative. A law that is only wishes is no law at all, at least to me.

November 29, 2007 at 12:59 PM  
Anonymous Michael Tanner said...

That was a real blast of fresh air. I enjoyed especially the part about how so many people should not have gone to college in the 60s and 70s. I was one of those. I went to avoid the draft and got the usual brainwashing. Totally useless waste of time and money. Later I went to engineering school. Finally, a real education.

You are so right about the modern business of poetry. This clown you skewered reminds me of a bad poet I encountered when I was a kid: Rod McKuen. At that time all the taste I had was on my tongue but even so, I knew that poetry was crap. When I read the Tolides stuff I thought of McKuen. Now I need to drink mass quantities to get that out of my head.

November 29, 2007 at 1:02 PM  
Blogger Kevin Jones said...

I first encountered Tolides through that laughably bad mouse poem in the Jesuits' America magazine.

That day, my admiration for the sons of Ignatius Loyola died a little bit more.

If it weren't for the filtering effect of academic approval, anyone could write as poorly. I suppose that's the point.

Thank you for doing the necessary work of taking out the trash.

November 29, 2007 at 1:24 PM  
Blogger Black Sea said...

Frank O'Hara

Let the rot begin:

Autobiographia Literaria

When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
all alone.

I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
flew away.

If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out "I am
an orphan."

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!

A poem about nothing, indeed! I particularly dislike this sort of self-congratulatory, "gee, isn't it neat to be a poet" poems.

I don't want to read books about how sophisticated it is to read books, and I don't want to read poems about how sublime (or whatever) it is to write poems.

I think James Merrill did a fair amount of this sort of thing, though at a higher standard than O'Hara. Your Tryfon Tolides poem reminded me a bit of Merrill's oeuvre, though it's been decades, proabably, since I've read his work, so maybe I'm shortchanging him.

Merrill lived on one of the Greek Isles, and his poems, as I remember them, are full of blowsy, black-eyed boys, and sinous, billowing curtains, and sharp Aegean sunlight, and so forth, all the necessary props, but again, better handled than O'Hara or Tolides. Merrill was a descended from the Merrills of Merill-Lynch fame, so I suppose he never had to teach a poetry seminar, unless of course there were some of those black-eyed boys enrolled.

Mencius, if you are interested in Robert Lowell, I strongly recommend Ian Hamilton's biography. Lowell was, as Norman Mailer once observed, "spoiled, and in need of spoiling." But also a fascinating, oddly charismatic New England screwball, and very much an Optimate. Perhaps the Last of the Optimates.

November 29, 2007 at 1:51 PM  
Blogger Studd Beefpile said...

Again Mencius, the New Deal State (generally I see more of a distinction than you between it and the Great Society State, a post analyzing the differences between the two might prove enlightening) is guilty of enormous crimes, like all states. The New Dealers simply had more effecient methods for wreaking havoc than their predecessors did.

Also, Poe is at least one shining light in the 19th century, but he has to be read aloud to be appreciated.

November 29, 2007 at 2:25 PM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

Wow! A post I have opinions on! This reminds me of what I just wrote on Millais. With all the usual MM ideology, of course.

It was Orwell who told us to "trust a snake before a Jew, and a Jew before a Greek," and I certainly see no reason to contradict him. (Snakes, in fact, are quite trustworthy.)"

More trustworthy than Orwell, I suspect.

"It is unusually bad. But it is not atypically bad."

Isn't this a self-contradiction?

"Because of the sound of traffic,
I will always wonder,
and I shall be troubled at what remains

I think this should be repunctuated:

"Because of the sound of traffic,
I will always wonder,
and I shall be troubled at what remains.


Total shit, of course. I don't know if it's any worse than the usual fodder in the TLS or New Yorker.

Have you ever noticed the rise of the phrase 'clever-clever', sometimes abbreviated to 'clever'? It has always implied to me that poetry (/literature) isn't allowed to be clever any more. Cleverness is no longer enjoyed. Which is why we get lines like 'the Aegean
ripples with infinite small lights', which is so staggeringly un-clever--such a heart-rendingly uncreative attempt to render visual experience--that it makes my eyes bleed.

As for WCW, I feel exactly the same way about 'plums in the icebox', which I sort of like despite myself, but regard as the beginning of the end; the visual equivalent is Duchamp's Fountain.

"a brand new, ancient, brave new world."

Ha ha! May I introduce you to my substitute for 'blurb'--'bibliobole' (and its bedfellows, dramabole, cinemabole, etc.)

November 29, 2007 at 3:10 PM  
Blogger Mitchell said...

*clears throat*

"An Almost Pure Empty Writing: The Poem About Nothing as Quintessential Democratic Art Form (Journal of Twentieth-Century Studies)"

Nothing to say,
but they said it so well.

Anyone can do it,
and so they all did.

But now, no-one even cares enough
to mock them!

November 29, 2007 at 3:27 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


Not at all! If it was atypically bad, it would be bad in some way which was not at all typical. It would have its own weird badness, unhappy in a Tolstoyan way. It might be more interesting than Tolides, but it would certainly be nowhere near so stereotypical.

November 29, 2007 at 4:25 PM  
Blogger chris miller said...

Bad poetry? -- even my tinny ear thinks so.

But the murder of poetry?

I don't think you can blame these folks (or the programs that encourage them)

A hundred years ago they would have been teaching in some village school - today they're teaching in some community college -- either way they're not writing any poetry that we're going to remember -- and you can't really hold them responsible for the absence of Dylan Thomas and Robert Graves.

That would have to be due to divine punishment for transgressions not yet understood.

November 29, 2007 at 4:26 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

I've read the Hamilton biography. I am quite aware that Cal Lowell was an absolute freak of a freak, not to mention a thoroughly mean and unpleasant person.

(Though he was also a jailed antiwar protester in World War II, which I gotta say is pretty cool.)

I still like his verse, though, and more important I like it not because anyone told me to. I like Joseph Brodsky, too - I get a lot more shit for that.

November 29, 2007 at 4:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm starting a rumor that, like the War Nerd, MM is really John Dolan.


November 29, 2007 at 7:21 PM  
Blogger B. Durbin said...

It seems to me that one of the hallmarks of bad modern poetry is the disuse of any word outside an eighth-grade vocabulary. This is undoubtedly so that the poet will not be accused of being "pretentious."

I've written one and a half good poems in my life. The rest is entertaining doggerel* or, at the most, song lyrics. The completed poem was published in the college annual (not exactly a literary achievement, but since I don't aspire to being a poet, it's good enough.) I amused myself by asking various people what it meant— only one bothered with the obvious interpretation, which was what I was actually thinking about when I wrote it.

One friend thought it was about lesbian sex. (I used chalice imagery.)

Anyway. It was a good poem. I doubt it would ever be considered a great one. But it was a good poem nonetheless. And maybe someday I'll figure out another half for the other one. Or not. It is, perhaps, better left unfinished and out of the mire.

*Entertaining to me at least. I won't inflict it upon you.

November 29, 2007 at 7:30 PM  
Blogger Daniel Nester said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

November 30, 2007 at 6:32 AM  
Blogger brendon said...

black sea,

you're not shortchanging james merrill. he wrote a book of poems with a ouija board (called changing light at sandover).


i sent your post to a friend of mine who's sort of involved in the poetry scene, and she said that 'dogwalking poetry', as she put it, is dead among the younger poets. however, i did go with her to a younger poet's reading in soho where a korean lesbian read her book, Dance, Dance Revolution, written from the point of view of a guide to a dystopian future las vegas speaking in a korean-english patois. so, the kids have combined race opera with their only cultural reference, video games. come, muslim hordes, come.

November 30, 2007 at 11:12 AM  
Blogger Ashen Man said...

Delighted to read to this and know I'm not alone in despising 'pure empty poetry' - a perfect descriptor considering its Zen pretensions - which I had previously described in its Californian incarnation as I'm-so-zen-I'm-drinking-tea-at-the-foot-of -Mt-Shasta-like-Gary-Snyder poetry. Or is that a horrific genre all of its own?

Anyway, Mr. Moldbug, I've been reading over your blog for the past several weeks, and enjoying it immensely - particularly the posts on caste and the reactionary theory of history. I hope it's not out of place to make a few comments on them here:

For the caste system, why not just use the Indian terms for all five: optimates are kshatriyas, the aristocratic rulers, and helot is surely synonymous with sudra, labourer or servant. Then you'll have several millennia of discussion and analysis to draw on in understanding the American manifestation of the system.

Also, with interests like these, I'm surprised you haven't mentioned Traditionalist thinkers like Guenon, Schuon and Evola.

"No idea is as absurd as the idea of progress, which together with its corollary notion of the superiority of modern civilization, has created its own 'positive' alibis by falsifying history, by insinuating harmful myths in people's minds, and by proclaiming itself sovereign at the crossroads of the plebeian ideology from which it originated."
Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World

Now you can really call this a neofascist hate blog.

December 1, 2007 at 9:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An example of nearly empty poetry which I like:

Clark Ashton Smith


Odysseus in Eternity

OBLIVION Swells our sails and bears us on
To the seas beyond the sun.

The Ghost of Theseus

WHERE nights are one with days
I roam the empty stony maze
That stalled the Minotaur.

He was once actually a popular new poet in the neoromantic style (Baudelaire etc), but the change in taste left him stranded.


December 1, 2007 at 10:47 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

Interesting take on Robert Lowell. As a student, I basically dismissed him as another Universalist confessional navel-gazer.... a proto-Plath. I need to dig out my lit anthology and give him another look.

December 1, 2007 at 10:50 AM  
Anonymous sprewell said...

Perhaps you could explain the difference between the conception of those you mentioned in your last post, who see "the 20th century as a Jewish conspiracy," and your notion of directed mobs:

Education, for New Deal Democrats, is just like immigration - a way of making more Democrats. Of course, no one thinks of it this way, but the machine works whatever its parts are thinking.

Also, isn't it a bit mean to be picking on a pizza delivery boy? I suppose you figure he's fair game because of the Penguin deal but it might have been better to go after some middle-aged and respectable, and no doubt horrible, university poet rather than eviscerate some page in their medieval bureaucracy. Or were you one of the contestants he cheated? :)

December 1, 2007 at 10:59 AM  
Blogger Black Sea said...

Lowell was a proto-Plath, in the sense that he taught Plath, as well as that demi-Plath, Anne Sexton, in a poetry seminar at Boston College.

If anyone is interested, about a year ago I wrote a post about the 1980s New York poetry scene called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Art to Me.

Really, really awful.

December 1, 2007 at 11:42 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

Kevin Jones's comments about the 'filtering effect of academic approval' and 'taking out the trash' remind me of an account I read some time ago about a Damien Hirst exhibition in London. One of the 'artworks' exhibited consisted of a group of hall-filled ashtrays and half-empty cocktail glasses. After a well-attended gallery opening the janitor came to clean up, and not having a university education, could not distinguish between Mr. Hirst's masterpiece and the detritus left by the guests at the opening. Out everything went to the dustbin!

The annoying thing about much contemporary art, music, and poetry is that its creators continue to follow the hoary injunction 'épatez le bourgeoisie' when there are none left, at least of the sort envisioned by those who first uttered that slogan, pour épater. Their heirs come to fashionable openings to rhapsodize over what would have revolted the sort of solid citizen whose revulsion bohemians courted two or three generations ago.

MM's mention of Robert Lowell and Brendon's of the Korean lesbian's dystopic future Las Vegas oddly put me in mind of another poetic Lowell, namely Amy. She was a corpulent cigar-smoking lesbian whose physical characteristics prompted Ezra Pound to call her a "hippopoetess." Having now introduced Pound into the discussion after Ashen Man's quotation of Evola perhaps I have boosted the neofascist credentials of UR, or at least its writeback section.

December 1, 2007 at 1:37 PM  
Blogger George Weinberg said...

One of the 'artworks' exhibited consisted of a group of hall-filled ashtrays and half-empty cocktail glasses.

So are you an optimist or a pessimist?

December 1, 2007 at 7:14 PM  
Blogger Lloyd Mintern said...

I also blame William Carlos Williams. So much depends, indeed. And wasn't it Richard Nixon who created the National Endowment of the Arts? Wallace Stevens poem "I placed a jar in Tennessee" is also one of the progenitors of this tradition. But, poetry is so difficult hardly anyone can do it.

December 1, 2007 at 7:42 PM  
Blogger Ashen Man said...

Of course, that's 'pure' as in 'puritan' - the poetry of ultracalvinism.

December 2, 2007 at 1:07 PM  
Blogger jinrok said...

There are a lot of prominent worthy poets, currently or recently active. The heirs to the technically skilled, sane, and honest poets are found among the "singer-songwriters". It's still a maddeningly small fraction of that set, of course, but as long as the salutary alliterative lucidity of Larkin survives in an occasional new Aimee Mann album, I feel far from museless.

So, since other people are sticking stuff up here, here's my (in part) arts/academy towel-inthrowing poem:

(Composing an) Epitaph for a Gambler

(In Northern woods, the lumberjack
Had ceased to guess, begun to hack;

The toiler, with four little lives upon his back,
Contributed to structure where there was a lack;

Dutiful students, smile and snicker, coat and pack,
Teacher, with eye for white and black,
Bound oblique ideas to a stretching-rack,
Reformed them with a prod.)

This gambler's trade was to predict the voice of God,
And build or break no thing of God's, only his stack.

December 3, 2007 at 8:08 AM  
Blogger Aaron Davies said...

Since MM doesn't seem to believe in open threads, I suppose I'll post this here: an analysis of the Venezuelan referendum that struck me as remarkably formalist.

December 5, 2007 at 1:27 PM  
Blogger River Cocytus said...

Pfew! Good post, MM. I sent you a 'missive'. You would do well to at least receive it before you burn it. If I'm feeling optimistic I think you may have chance to read it and respond before it hits the incinerator.

Chesterton somehow has come to a very similar conclusion as you, Mr. Moldbug, about history.

Ashen: 'pure' as in 'calvinist' sounds good to me. They're the only sort of Christians who were Christian enough to be pure and Heretical enough to be solemn. They killed all meaningful progress through a progress towards an inhuman seriousness, which kills all desire to progress, anyway. Those who lay claim to an absurd purity and 'love' forget how human it is to hate and be dirty. In fact, it appears that the most common blasphemy is that of Valentinius, which is to consider Jesus human enough to be a good person, but not quite human enough to go to the bathroom. Where we should suppose the food went after he ate it? The same place all of his jokes and dancing went; they've made him just human enough to make it easy to question whether he existed or not, and to make people fancy he married Mary Magdelene.

Idiots, all. I only 'turned towards love' when I got a good slap across the face about the practicality of the idea, and the impracticality of my own personal fanciful idea of love.

Tolides was Greek enough to enjoy Athos, but too Greek to appreciate the fact that Athos defies the world. He turns toward the nothingness of the great pyramid scheme of his life.

Good riddance!

December 5, 2007 at 2:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tearing into this guy about the fall of western academia could only be the act of someone desperate for approval. Do you need someone to tell you how clever you are? Or did this guy beat you out for something, sour grapes?

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'George Orwell. In the introduction to Animal Farm says that in England, unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. reason [Orwell says] is the press is owned by wealthy men who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed. And the second reason—and I think a more important one—is a good education. If you have gone to the best schools and graduated from Oxford and Cambridge, and so on, you have instilled in you the understanding that there are certain things it would not do to say; actually, it would not do to think. That is the primary way to prevent unpopular ideas from being expressed.

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December 19, 2008 at 6:31 AM  
Blogger Val said...

This post is brilliantly on point. I went to school with this douche, and the Marie Antoinette analogy totally fits. The trouble with this pseudo-poet is he's not even romantically nationalistic, because he has no clue about what even being Greek is or knew anything of its history. When he dropped his news about winning that prize, I knew the rules must rigged. Because I'd gone to readings and heard his "nostalgic" cliched verse of unfinished thoughts. I wonder if Mary Karr still vouches for him. The answer is probably, yes. Yet another example of fraternization of the university. Catholicism & religion anyone?

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January 31, 2009 at 10:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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March 2, 2009 at 9:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! thanks a lot! ^^

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March 2, 2009 at 9:50 PM  

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