Saturday, January 20, 2007

Protest & Political Poetry

Politically motivated? Pissed off at the bad conditions of the world? Empathy for the sufferers, for the mothers of the disappeared? Concerned about social justice? Worried about those worse off than yourself?

Write a poem about it!

But wait: what happened to the tradition of protest music, protest song, political singer-songwriters? that whole generation from Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, to the present? (Topic for another time: Industrial music is the new protest music: it addresses the same concerns and issues, while most of the singer/songwriters these day seem to be less political, more self-concerned; the same way the personal confessional lyric has come to dominate poetry.)

Still: write a poem, and speak your mind!

But wait: protest poetry isn't dead, not really. It never was. You could check out Poets Against the War online (I even had a poem on their website, when they first started out) You could check out the entire history of Arabic poetry, which is full of such poetry. War and death and suffering in the desert lands are nothing new.

The chief problem with political poems is that they are ephemeral, and topical: they rarely outlast the events which they are talking about, and they rarely rise above the fray to endure past those times in which they are written. They might still be read in later centuries, but usually only as an artistic footnote reflecting upon the historical chapter. A commentary on social justice by a dead protester.

Sometimes the most political poetry that you can write is something that endures beyond the news of the hour, and lasts for a good long time. Walt Whitman, for example, comes to mind, with his Lincoln poems, his Civil War poems. When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd endures because it is not a short-term angry protest-poem, but because it is a poem of universal mourning, a meditation on death, and an evocation of eternity. Most political poems, especially protest-poems, fall far short of that mark, because they are written out of short-term outrage rather than deep, lasting, human experience.

Sometimes the most political poetry you can write is poetry that points out how the earth endures, despite everything horrible that humans do to it, and to each other.

Even otherwise excellent poets will often write crap, when they turn to political/protest (outrage) poetry. It's not the poets that are at fault, usually, rather the subject matter itself tends to make the poems topical and ephemeral. Even some of the more political poems by Browning, Whitman, Hopkins, Sandburg and Frost, just don't stand the test of time. Protest is a subject matter that inherently tends to be difficult to pull off as a good, enduring poem. It's as if many poets and readers think, given the subject of the poem, the craft of the poem ought to be given a free pass. This is very parallel to poets and readers thinking that therapy-poems ought to be given a free pass, as if a poet who writes about abuse or rape or torture should be soothed rather than critiqued.

It's almost as if the critical faculty goes out the window, when the subject matter is political. At the worst extreme, political correctness gone wrong tells us that we dare not offer critique of the Other's artistic product; although some of the reasons behind that viewpoint may be sound (acceptance of diversity, the innate fairness of wanting to meet the Other in an arena of understanding, whether the arena be one of gender, culture, sexuality, race, whatever), taken to its silliest extreme, that otherwise wise stance or equality and fairness denies any possibility of criticism on purely literary grounds.

It seems to me that many political poems seem to be written with ambition: that they will noticed, that their voices will be heard, that they will survive the judgment of history. Think about it: it takes a certain amount of necessary ego, even necessary hubris, to imagine that anything one writes as a personal protest poem will survive the test of time. Ego is not inherently bad in itself, but neither is ego-inflation the same as self-confidence. There's a difference between mature self-confidence and raw ambition.

The irony is that most political poems don't survive the judgment of history. Of course one is perfectly free to write whatever one wants to write, for whatever reason, whenever, however, whoever, whatever. One is also free to believe that one is in fact contributing to the course of history by using one's art to make comments about that historical course. One might be right, and one might be wrong. I don't think one can know, in advance.

When I look at the art and poems that have survived the test of time, whether or not their creators ever intended them to is almost irrelevant. You never know, and you can't. I'm not saying that poets should write with the test of time in mind. I'm not saying that at all. Poets shouldn't think about the judgment of history, when they are writing, because they can't do anything about it. Not only that, worrying about the verdict of history can skew up what one does write: it can lead to self-censorship, but it can also lead towards personal ego-fulfillment, rather than about serving one's muse.

I'm all for artists using their creative voices to persuade, cajole, entice, subvert, teach, learn, practice, invoke, etc. I am less sanguine about artists using their creative voices to castigate, lecture, vilify, control, harangue, etc.

Most political poetry, by its very nature, is pedantic, polemic, and lecturing. That is another good reason it tends to have a short shelf-life.

But if you wrote a poem about the redwoods that makes people think about them, love them, and want to conserve their habitat, that might become an enduring political/social poem. Perhaps more enduring than a topical political poem, because the environment is a bigger, more enduring issue itself. There can be a ripple effect: if you photographed or painted them in all kinds of light and weather, your artwork might touch a few who are new to wanting to save them; the same could happen with a poetry of natural existence, such as Robinson Jeffers'.

I think that's how real, enduring change happens. I don't think real political change happens from the top down, but from the bottom up. It can be slow, and apparently indirect, but when you change someone's ideas about their place in the universe, you have changed their lives, and their zeitgeist, and their politics. I think that's far more enduring than who's President right now, or who's in Congress. It's the Native American idea of stewarding the earth so that it will still be there to be lovingly inhabited by the seventh generation. I think art can make a difference in this particular arena of political action, in a way that the topically-political cannot. Rather, the topical, Washington D.C. Beltway-level of the political status quo is what I think poetry can have no impact on, because those people in D.C. don't read poetry anyway, or really care about the arts, or think they mean anything.

The philosophy of change and action at the grass-roots level is something the D.C. insiders always discount, and underestimate. (It's one reason I can never take them very seriously.) Grass-roots action is the philosophy behind eco-friendly publishers such as Sierra Club Books; to be honest, those earlier books, especially under David Brower's editorship, really did make a difference to a lot of people, and helped ignite the conservation movement, influencing such legislation as the Clean Air Act. (Which Nixon signed into law, one might recall.) I collect old Sierra Club editions, and treasure them. I have several books of photos by Elliott Porter, a great nature photographer; I also have been reading Not Man Apart, which is a book of photos accompanying the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. It's an excellent edition, and in some ways a better introduction to his occasionally challenging poetry, than are his own purely poetry books.

Art about conservation is inherently more enduring than art about war or politics, because the earth is more enduring than nations. Stewardship of the earth is an ethical value I think worth promoting, and is more likely to effect long-term political change, from the grass-roots, than the growing body poems about the current war—and there have always been poems about the current war, because there has always been a current war.

I should point out at this juncture that there is often a conflation between "war poetry" and "political poetry," which is ultimately misleading. War poetry is poetry about war, or against war, or about the horror of war. One keeps returning to Wilfred Owen's famous statement, My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. His poems are about individual, specific moments, with specific characters and specific moments. They are true to human experience, specific rather than general, reportorial rather than ideological. That's why they're memorable poems. They're not vague philosophical generalities, they're not abstract, they're specific. Strange Meeting, one of his masterpieces, is all about how the universal emerges from the specific:

. . . 'Strange friend,' I said, 'here is no cause to mourn.'
'None,' said that other, 'save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here. . . .

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . .'

Generalities are not what make a poem universal and enduring. Many poets will likely agree that what makes poems endure is the way they evoke the personal and the specific in the reader, almost somatically or empathically, if you will. The main problem with political poetry, again, is the tendency to make Grand Philosophical Statements—most of which tend to be familiar to the point of being clichés, abstract to the point of being disembodied, ideological rather than ethical, ineffective simply because they are clichés. Politicians use soundbytes to distill their messages—poets can do much more than that, and probably ought to at least make an attempt.

War poetry is as Owen indicates: it's reportorial, it's about pity, and it's often a response to the experience, and the horror. (Keith Douglas, Steve Murphy, Michael Casey, other "war poets," most of them vets exemplify this. Some of them even survived.)

Political protest poetry, I have noticed over many years, is not often written by veterans; it is often written by those on the home front. (There's no judgment here, just an observation.) Political protest poetry, which is what most think of as "political poetry," is often about disagreeing with those in political power at the moment: but it often reads as a screed, a diatribe, a broadsheet, a polemic, a sermon, a heckling, and not much as poetry. That's fine, that's its purpose. (If you assume that I'm saying that all political protest anti-war poetry is a priori bad and wrong, go back and read what I said again: I said, it's often not very good, and it often fails to endure past the topical moment.) The purpose of screed, diatribe, protest, polemic, and propaganda is to change peoples' minds, change their opinions so that they agree with your own. Convince them of the truth of your own viewpoint. Yelling at them only makes them clamp down and ossify their opinions. If you really want to change someone's mind, cajole them, entice them, get them to walk a mile in someone else's shoes—get them to think of something outside their usual circle of awareness, get them to appreciate the viewpoints held by the Other. One of the best ways to do this is through a poetry of embodiment—rather than a poetry of ideas.

Again, I refer the reader to Robinson Jeffers; he embodies both aspects of this issue, in different poems. His best poems succeed because they are specific, evocative, full of fresh imagery; they convince one to love and care for the earth simply by making us fall in love with it all over again. His worst poems, among them his most overtly political poems, and his most screed-like, tend to be built on ideas rather than images, abstractions rather than story, satiric devices (his much-maligned and often-misunderstood ideas about "Inhumanism," for example) rather than personal contact with the reader, and so forth. His work is an interesting case study of the best and the worst aspects of political/polemic poetry. Jeffers was a WWI veteran, and his experiences in that war colored the rest of his life and work.

Good poetry must be true to the experience it communicates. It needs to come from the heart, yes, but it needs to include the head and the hands in the mix: intellect, empathy, and artifice combined.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Poetry & the Sixth Sense (& the Soma)

Writing of poetry is often based on the soma, the five senses, the material of everyday life. It shares in the positivist assumption that only what we can perceive with our five senses is real.

But there is an inner knowing, that is not "supernatural"—the "super" is irrelevant, because all of it is natural—that can be called the intuitive sense. As something not measurable by scientific instruments, we usually ignore the awarenesses this "sixth sense" brings us: survival instincts; the trained sense of wrongness that soldiers talk about, that has kept them alive in dangerous situations; the feeling of "going with the gut" that leads one to right answers; the experience of synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence. None of this is supernatural. None of it is even necessarily mystical—and since when did "mystical" become a pejorative term? That's both a misuse of the word, and a misunderstanding of its meaning.

Nothing is more ordinary. Nothing is more continuous and common. You see it all the time.

It's just that our culture, which is a materialistic culture, teaches us to dismiss and ignore any experience of intuition, and any evidence of it that we encounter. We dismiss as madmen and schizophrenics anyone who has visions; or we try to fit their visionary experiences into traditional, known, accepted religious molds, such as visions of angels, the divine figures we are familiar with, and so forth. This is all so that the report of the witness of the Mysterious doesn't rip up the social fabric too much. It's a way of not having to deal with the unexplained, because it might shake up one's own life. (Most people are not ready to have their lives shaken open; even if they say they are, they resist it with all their will.) It keeps consensus reality (mostly) intact. (Which is maya, illusion, of course.)

It's no wonder most people who live with this ordinary, intuitive, visionary sense choose not to talk about it. They will face denial, dismissal, retribution, and the closes ranks of the close-minded, all their lives. I have heard the story over and over again, among people who have been drawn to any of the neo-pagan nature religions, how these people would "see things" all their lives, be dismissed or outright abused by mainstream religious institutions.

There's a reason there is so much anti-Christian sentiment amongst neo-pagans: it's because of the personal pain many have suffered at the hands of traditional religious authorities. The same animosity, for almost the smae reasons, has a strong presence in the LGBT community. I do not share this animosity, I only report its presence.

It's perfectly possible to witness a miracle in the middle of a crowded street that no one else sees, because most people have become adept at seeing only what they want to see, and at inventing rational explanations that allow them to go with their lives undisturbed, the rationalize the intrusion of Mystery into their ordinary day. Man: the rationalizing animal. It's only when people encounter synchronicity face to face, in ways they can't get around or deny, that they start to imagine that there might be a wider, hidden world beyond that of their everyday lives. Again, this hidden layer of the world is not supernatural, but natural.

When you start to "remove the veils" from your eyes, when the doors of perception are op't, these sorts of intuitions become commonplace. Belief is irrelevant, in the face of experience, if you maintain an open mind. One potential stumbling point, however, is that when "the doors of perception" are opened, it's hard to close them back up again. So, caveat emptor.

None of this is anything new. What's new in our era is two things: 1. that the language and methodology of science, as practiced in some branches of theroetical physics, has come to accept the possibility of the Mysterious, the Unknown and unknowable, if not to actively embrace it; 2. with the release of centuries of hidden knowledge in the middle of the last century (exemplified in the East by the Dalai Lama being exiled from Tibet, and in the West by the Council of Vatican II), mysticism has "gone mainstream," so that people are actually talking about it now, and have a developing language with which to talk about it. True, the language is still developing, and as yet contains a lot of snake oil.

Synchronicity is a word coined by C.G. Jung to mean, a meaningful coincidence. Synchronicities are often encounters with numinous occasiona, liminal experiences; they give one a sense of living, for a moment, at a heightened level of consciousness. All the senses, the five senses and all the rest, come alive, we become aware of much more than usual, including the kinesthetic sense of prioperception. We might feel "awake and alive" in contrast to our everyday world of dulled, routine senses. (Formulated in Hindu-Buddhist terms as maya, illusion.)

In such a state of heightened awareness, it's almost impossible to not experience a synchronicity of some kind. This is actually because synchronicities happen all the time, it's just that, for the most part, we ignore or dismiss them. Perhaps intuition is nothing more than being open to synchronicity.

Cause and effect in linear, progressive time is not what this is about. Can one person "cause" a hurricane? (Edward Lorenz, the discover of the strange attractor, formulated the butterfly effect as a meteorological explanation.) A perhaps more meaningful question might be, what am I in alignment with that formulated the timing of external, world events in parallel to my thoughts and inner world? Or, why is this apparent conjunction of events meaningful? Most Jungian psychologists would then go within, and direct the next questions at the client's inner world; some, increasingly, would accept the synchronicity as is, and work with its meaning in the outer world.

Most of my poetry is rooted in these kinds of experiences.

I don't write rationalist, intellectual, positivist, narrative-based poetry (narration is based on the assumption of linear time, which both quantum mechanics and mysticism explode). I get a lot of grief about that. I don't care. Everyone has to live their own life in the way they see best fit. It's only a problem when people try to convince other people that their experience is better or more true to life than anyone else's. (Thinking your way of life is more true than someone else's is also maya, illusion.)

So, I would say, if your senses, any of your senses, lead you in a direction, whatever that direction is, report on it in your poetry. It is all still poetry of soma, poetry of the body and the whole self. (But show us, don't tell us; all "telling" poetry is based in the head, not the soma.) There have been attempts to do this in poetry over the past century—I do not include the Surrealists specifically because they never got out of their heads, and they explicitly stated that they were mining the subconscious for artistic raw materials, first and foremost, but as a tool to be exploited—from Antonin Artaud to Neruda to the Beats to others. Auden, as much as I respect him in other ways, remains a "head" poet rather than a "soma" poet, and typifies many of the bodiless talking heads who have followed him. Frost is far more somatic.

I suppose literature is inherently very much more a "head" art than a "soma" (such as dance and music are), and one supposes intellectualism might be a harder habit to break than in other media, such as painting and music. Anthropologists and art critics alike have talked about "the shock of the new," but shock doesn't last all that long, unless you resist it; you either get used to it, or deny its existence. (Typified by jazz musicians who declare late Coltrane to be not-music, and some painters who think that abstract expressionism was just a temporary detour.)

To start towards a poetry of all the senses, including the subtle sense of intuition, I would recommend the sensual poets of Latin America as a good place to start. Neruda, Paz, etc. I would also recommend the always-sensual Greek poets, especially the moderns such as Cavafy, Elytis, Seferis, Sikelianos. I would also recommend books like Isabel Allende's Aphrodite and Barry Lopez' River Notes and Desert Notes as exemplars of poetic, sensual language.

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The Practicalities of Critique & Criticism 4: Subjectivity

Discussions about criticism and critique are, according to some critics, bound to remain problematic, beacuse they are riddled with subjectivity. For example, when we say I'd like to read some good writing, which seems a reasonable request, defining what good writing is becomes the problem. Attempts to establish objective criteria, beyond issues purely of form and craft, about poetry have been proposed, for example: poems that win poetry competitions and awards; poems that have stood the test of time; fame of one sort or another. Let's look at these afresh.

I agree that subjectivity can be a problem—but only to a point. I can never agree with the final thrust of arguments that end up saying all critique is a matter of (subjective) taste, because this is a position which ends in total subjectivity, total solipsism. Total subjectivity is a cop-out, critically, because what it ultimately does is prevent us from ever generating any sort of criticism, ever, beyond back-slapping congratulations and luke-warm plaudits. It is a viewpoint that completely paralyzes any attempt at genuine criticism before it can even get started. So, even though there are subjective elements to critcism, throwing our hands up in despair, because it's all "subjective," gets us nowhere. We must proceed as if there are genuinely objective aspects to criticism; and there are.

Beyond the purely technical aspects of a poem, one of the chief objective criterion is durability; another is pulling the reader in to experience the poem themselves; another is freshness. This is not to say that any given reader's assessment won't contain some level of subjective evaluation—but it is also never totally subjective, or we'd all be solipsists living in our own little universes, and never talking to each other. The truth lies in the middle. Whitman and Dickinson both wrote bad poems, as well as great poems (I include vanity and ego-based self-indulgence amongst my criteria for what makes a bad poem), but their greatest poems do endure, and have endured. The test of time is something more than merely a subjective assessment of a poem's quality—because a great poem will continue to speak to the human experience, as long as we are still human.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the first-person love poem, as an entire genre, is inherently banal and clichéd, at this stage of the game, because everyone has written 5 or more of them (myself included) since time began. The problem is that the subject matter itself—the personal response to being in love—has become banal, predictable, and clichéd, simply because the vast majority of the poems executed on the subject, which serve as models for later writers, are banal, predictable, and clichéd. Nothing recycles a cliché like a topic that everyone has always written about.

Are there good first-person love poems? Certainly. They are, however, in the tiny majority. Is it possible to still write a good first-person love poem? Yes, although here one is less certain. (I'd like to think that the few love poems I've written are different enough to stand out from the pack; but that could be wish-fulfillment.) The challenge is immense, because of all the existing baggage around the topic and the weight of zillions of bad poems on the topic. In order to be fresh and new, on this topic, a poet is going to have work at their maximum potential, transcend their own limits, and achieve a very high standard—which might not be worth the effort, for some, and for others might not be achievable.

Shaky ground shouldn't scare off anyone attempting to do criticism, even in this post-modern era wherein all the previous terra firma camps and -isms have been called into question. The lesson the existentialists sought to teach was not that there is no meaning, and the universe is absurd; but rather, that meaning is generated by us, from what we decide to give meaning to, and that it is worthwhile to go on even if the universe is absurd. (Samuel Beckett: I can't go on, I must go on, I'll go on.)

I think that if all we can do is pat each other on the back, if critiquing is too hard, then we might as well not bother; in which case, via self-fulfilling prophecy, there will in fact be no standard of criticism other than subjectivity. But I reject the notion that encouragement is the be-all and end-all of criticism, because as humane and pleasant as that is in theory, in practice it leads to a lot of bad poetry and a lot of even worse criticism. Not least of which is the rise of therapy-poems and journal-poems, which have come to dominate the confesional lyric genre, and which badly suffer from the aforementioned sins of vanity and self-indulgence.

Another difficulty with "objective vs. subjective" in criticism is the tendency on the part of many critics to forget that there is a continuum of points between the poles. In other words, more positions than the absolute-and-total positions of complete objectivity and subjectivity exist. Subjectivity and objectivity always mix together, in varying degrees. Finding that point on the continuum where a poem can be examined more objectively than most might be a difficult challenge, but I for one think it's worth the effort. Otherwise, everything really is subjective, and we might as well all take our marbles and go home. Which would be a shame.

i think it's true that a good poem is a created world that is "as pure, honest, unique, and meaningful as one is capable of making it." But that too is an objective standard towards which one can aspire—at the very least it's a more objective standard, simply because many people will agree with it, and pursue it as a poetic value. (Concensus reality may be squishy, but it's one of the few criteria we have, as a cognitive species, for creating objectivity. As the existentialists say: if there is no meaning, create your own meaning.)

Different worlds, different doors, have different rules, and the world a poem inhabits needs to be understood and honored and respected. This is of course also why formalist rules, and prose-grammar rules, do not apply to all poems, all the time. (A truth many neo-formalists can't imagine, and don't allow themselves to explore.) The joy of discovering a new world, a new way of seeing the universe, is its own reward. That a diversity of viewpoints and disagreements exists should not be a cause for paralysis and despair (the perils of subjectivity), but a cause for celebration (the joys of diversity). Thank the gods not everyone agrees with me about everything! Otherwise, what would there be to talk about?

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Minutes of the Punctuation Appreciation Society

I experience mild synaesthesia, in mild forms, on a regular basis: the cross-wiring of the senses. (The classic literature on the topic uses the word "confusion," which I denounce, as there is nothing confusing about it.) Synaesthesia is stronger than simple assocation; it seems to be hardwired. Certain smells have characteristic colors for me, and certain sounds have colors and smells.

One of the interesting aspects of synaesthesia is that it is personal, individual, not universally systematized: different people have different sets of connections. This tends to repudiate two arguments non-synaesthetes have about synaesthesia, namely: that it is all culturally-derived association happening on some subconscious level, i.e. it's all in the mind; and, the reductive neurological idea that all brains will "short-circuit" in the same way. The data blow both of those arguments out of the water; even granted that most data on synaesthesia is anecdotal rather than statistical by its very nature.

Nonetheless, there can be times when it's unclear to me, as a writer, where the line between synaesthesia and idiosyncratic association is crossed. Some numerals have color, for me; I can't remember a time they didn't, but I can't rule out that it is an acquired, if idiosyncratic, association. 4 is blue, and 9 is brown, for example.

Which leads me to punctuation, and its pleasures.

I've written elsewhere about punctuation as notation for reading poetry out loud: as musical notation. Now, I want to discuss the associations and feelings I have for two elements of punctuation that I would champion: the colon; and the semi-colon.

The semi-colon is a wondrous connector; it brings you to full stop, as if ending the phrase, or thought, or sentence, but doesn't actually break the flow; my written journal is full of passages where almost the only punctuation I used was the semi-colon; I was streaming along, writing as fast as I could, and full punctuation, a period in particular, felt like it would break the flow, and bring the whole enterprise crashing to a halt; instead, the semi-colon gives us pause, but doesn't break the flow; the energy of the line surges on; this works in prose as well as in poetry, for me.

The colon is, for me, a stronger, fuller stop: but the energy of the line lunges forward into the next phrase. The colon has forward momentum, while the period is a momentum-killer. The period stops you dead. The colon says, yes, we're stopped: but we're leaning forward, anticipating the next thing: as though it were about to arrive, and we were poised: propulsive: harnessed: straining at the reins. The colon moves things forward, even as it indicates a stop, a pause, a breath: you wait for what comes next. Colons are good for subtitles, too, of course; while the semi-colon is good for an aside: a sidebar comment; a parenthetical note.

So, that's how the energy of these two elements of punctuation feel to me: energy, as in energy-movement, as in dance, or dramaturgy, or music. I make no claims that any of this is remotely objective; it may be entirely idiosyncratic. Nonetheless, there it is.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Notes towards an egoless poetry 10: first person stranger

The question is asked: If you use the first person in a poem that is supposed to be in a character's "voice," does that create confusion between whether it is the narrator or the author speaking? and in the case of a non-human "speaker" in the poem, how do you convey what perhaps no language can convey, without becoming merely anthropomorphic?

Two initial replies come to mind:

1. Any time we use the first person, we risk the reader conflating the writer with the narrator. There are those whose literary-critical stance states that all writing is autobiographical, at least to some degree: because the writer cannot write from outside themselves, they can only reveal aspects of themselves. I think that's a fallacy, but it is a continuum of self-inclusion and self-revelation, obviously. There are degrees.

Still, if you do write a poem in a "voice," i.e. a character's voice, a narrator's voice, etc., you will run into this.

Readers who are perhaps less sophisticated may not always be able to tell who the first person is, in the poem, and how much the author's "I" is mixed in. This is not to say that one must be an academic theorist in order to understand a text—although I have read academic papers on Mickey Spillane, Winnie the Pooh, and Miami Vice—but there is a certain level of sophistication that simply reading a lot gives anyone who does. A less-sophisticated reader might not be able to articulate it an a sophisticated way, but they can still tell what's going on, and figure out the difference between Stephen King and any of his characters.

What you are left with is oppositional assumptions: that the poem is always about the poet; or, that the poem is never about the poet. The truth may lie in the middle: everything a poet writes may be at least partly about themselves, in terms of that poet's psychology and interests, but the poem may not be even remotely autobiographical.

2. In the case of the character/voice being a pre-human, non-linguistic being, you have to get the reader inside the mind of the character—but you have to use the tools of the words you familiarly know to do it. Is the character in fact non-human? is that even possible? How can we linguistically describe someone(thing) who(that) does not think the way we do? It might require a more experimental language than many poets feel comfortable using.

These are basically questions of xenopsychology. If someone thinks differently than we do, how can we express that? This is a basic difficulty for cultural anthropologists trying to explain their fieldwork experiences to their peers, and the general public. The range of human culture has been wildly diverse. One solution, obviously, is to use very different ways of expressing things. Here we can get into "experimental" text, altered syntax used to evoke a different kind o consciousness, or a different sense of time-binding. It's difficult to use narrative, linear time-bound language to describe a character who lives only in the Now; sometimes weird constructions and odd syntaxes are one's only recourse. Another solution is to invent a language, or mutate an existing language. Or play with syntax till some different way of structuring experience is developed. Anthony Burgess has experimented with Chinese grammar applied to English, for example.

The question of thinking from inside the mind of the Other is a question that has fascinated science fiction writers for decades. There are some great science fiction stories that get us into the mind of non-humans to good effect. (As much as that is ever possible.) If it's done well, one gets a completely different way of looking at the universe out of the experience. C.J. Cherryh is one of the best writers of this kind of science fiction; so was Jack Vance. Cherryh's Serpent's Reach and The Pride of Chanur are excellent examples; both novels explore the worldview of alien species with their own advance civilizations. Another writer who does this well is British SF writer Brian Stableford; his novels Critical Threshold and Optiman are particularly satisfying looks into alien psychology. Russell Hoban, in Riddley Walker, successfully uses a post-apocalyptic modified English throughout this novel; the people are all human, but not necessarily humans as we know them now. Sometimes they think in ways familiar to us; sometimes their rationales for their actions seem very alien.

What does it mean to be an "I"? or to be absent an "I"? or to have a different kind of "I"? What would that look like? What would it imply? How do we explore the ramifications, given the fact of it?

One good example is the seminal 1954 SF story by Alfred Bester, Fondly Fahrenheit. The story is told in the first person, but the story is about psychological projection and psychosis, and the "I" shifts constantly between two lead characters, till you're not always sure who is speaking at any one moment. It's a real tour-de-force of unusual voice viewpoint used in otherwise traditional narrative.

Other examples from science fiction:

Ursula K. LeGuin: Nine Lives, in which one character is the sole survivor of a clone of ten members; he must relive each death of his fellow clones before he can begin to discover his own identity, as a newly-minted individual.

Samuel R. Delany is a writer who has written a great deal of work about identity, identity politics, variant personality, and what it means to be human when you can change almost every aspect of identity, from name to gender to social role; several of his works deal with questions of identity directly: The Einstein Intersection; Triton; Dhalgren; Tales from Neveryona; Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand.

John Varley: The Ophiuchi Hotline, in which humans can change every aspect of their physical selves using discovered alien technology, including sexual gender; what would this mean for individual identity? how would it play out in society at large?

Varley also wrote the best "disability SF" story ever, The Persistence of Vision, about a group of deaf-and-dumb people together evolving towards a new kind of humanity.

Kate Wilhelm: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, an award-winning post-apocalyptic novel in which a small group of survivors continue to live as clone-colony; the first half of the book is about the creation of the new clone society; the second half of the book, taking place centuries later, is about the rediscovery of individuality within the established society of clones; throughout, the book raises many issues of identity, individuality, and the self.

Harlan Ellison's two Dangerous Visions anthologies of short stories and novellas contain several stories that also deal directly with questions of identity, occasionally in radical ways, using the tools of experimental meta-fiction, poetry, and stream-of-consciousness; some of the most experimental SF writing ever, all gathered in two giant anthologies.

I do find it interesting that it is so-called "genre fiction" that is so far ahead of the curve in exploring these issues, leaving both mainstream fiction and academic (and PC identity-political) poetry rather far behind in their wake. The "New Wave" period of SF in the 60s and 70s, exemplified by many of the writers included in Dangerous Visions, was a real hotbed of experimental writing, and a lot of these very issues of personhood were explored in depth by the best writers of that era and after.

In "voice" poems it may be necesarry to make it clear that the speaker is a character, not the author. One thinks of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, for example.

A bigger problem in first-person poetry returns us to the possibilities for an egoless poetry. The vast majority of first-person poetry in the past century has fallen into the mode of the confessional lyric. The emphasis is on the self, on personal, individual memories, perceptions, and experiences. Even the "voice" poem, or persona poem, in the first-person still tends to carry the assumption that the only real subject of poetry is the self. When one focuses all one's creativity on the self, the reification of the self is not only an illusion, but in spiritual terms, it causes suffering. The distinction is kept between subject and object, removing the possibility that subject/object are one, and that the distinction is an illusion. There is also subject-subject consciousness as a possibility. In strictly spiritual terms, the purpose of much spiritual technology and mystical practice is to remove and annihilate the self/selfhood, beginning with the illusion that the self stands apart from the world, as a remote observer. Rather, self participates in and is one with the world.

Perhaps the increasing secularization of world culture contributes to this emphasis on the self. Secularization in Western culture has its roots in the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, which were very much about bringing the (genius) individual to the foreground against the backdrop of the teeming masses. This can partly be laid at the feet of Plato, whose writings were re-introduced to Renaissance culture, and were tied to the origin of so-called secular humanism; in the Republic, the schema of the superior, talented leader, the aristos, is raised up against the backdrop the ordinary citizen, the demos. Medieval culture was very much about the "we" of the Tribe, and was openly anti-individualistic and pro-conformist. Part of the Renaissance rebellion against that, from Abelard to Galileo to Descartes, was to emphazise the individual over the tribe. Suddenly, everyone could do their own science experiments, and teach themselves, apart from the tribal-level dominance of the Church. Everyone could research the nature of the universe—which was not yet considered to be separate from the nature of God—and draw conclusions from observations.

Many contemporary (dare one say post-Modern?) spiritual teachers have begun to question the supremacy in Western culture of the observed physical universe over the parallel spiritual world of mythopoesis, unconscious archetype, and soul. For example, Dr. Caroline Myss, one of hte more gorunded of these contemporary teachers, talks about how both cultures and individuals evolve up a ladder of spiritual and social evolution that can be divided into three main levels: tribal, individual, and symbolic. The culture obviously evolves more slowly than its individual members, because it can only evolve at the rate of its slowest members. The shift from Medieval to Renaissance to Modern cultures was a shift from tribal to individual levels of power. Nowadays we are dealing, still, with post-Romantic Modernism, with its ultimate individualist portrayal of the hero-artist as total social outsider. We are now living in a period of time, post-avant-garde and post-Modernist, that is beginning to move from the individual to the symbolic level of power. Signs of that transition include the release of Eastern and Western traditions into the intellectual mainstream mid-20th-century, with the exile of the Tibetan monk-scholars from their homeland in 1959 and with the Council of Vatican II in 1965—both of these released previously esoteric, unpublished, and occult teachings into the mainstream, setting the stage for the first wave of spiritual explorations that occured in the 1960s. Signs of this transition also include the increasing attempts by religious groups to erode the principle of separation of church and state: the rise of the religious right, and the necessity for politics to be religious, even if only cynically, even if not genuinely spiritual. In other words, we have peaked with secularization, and now mysticism and spiritual seeking have become major issues in the cultural zeitgeist.

Of course poetry has to deal with all this. Note that the history of the confessional lyric really begins in the Renaissance, and culminates in the Confessional Poets of the mid-20th century, such as Lowell, Plath, Bishop, etc., many of whom were actively writing at the very time that the Tibetan government went into exile, and a few years later, Vatican II was taking place. I note this synchronicity as meaningful, without necessarily attempting to overburden it with too much interpretation. This is not just my opinion, but something I have been encountering repeatedly in the poetry criticism I have been reading of late, for example. A short list:

Philip Larkin: Required Writing
Sam Hamill: A Poet's Work
Robert Bly: American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity
William Stafford: You Must Review Your Life
Jim Harrison, in the introduction to his poems in: Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry
jane Hirshfield: Nine Gates
Hayden Carruth: Selected Essays & Reviews

So, this beginnning move to empty out the self, I think, is beginning to speak to more poets now, in the West, than before. We can argue about when this wave began, if it is was a prominent wave or not, but I think the fact that it keeps coming up in the essays and reviews of poets nowadays, is very telling.

None of this means that we can avoid the paradox of self-awareness and self-inclusion. Good art-making requires an incredible amount of self-honesty. Even if the topic is not the self, the artist must be aware of self involved in the process of art-making. And we connect to each other through the self. Good art begins with the particular and moves towards the universal: begin with the self, but don't stay there. Most confessional lyric never expands beyond its own boundaries: it looks only inward, a hall of mirrors. By contrast, great art, even if it is through the lens of the artist's self, is applicable to the life of the person reading the poem, or viewing that artwork.

Thus, working towards an egoless poetry does not mean never using the "I" in a poem. We don't want to limit the range of our tools, or exclude the possibility of the transcendent self being in the poem. But neither do we want to just stay locked into the "I." So, let me underline a few points that I think that we all need to be reminded of periodically:

• I dislike poetry that cheapens the experience of being alive: this is why I dislike easy sentimentality and cheap nostalgia in poetry, and also why I dislike clichés: they stand in for actual experience. They are merely signs. They are not even at the level of symbols.

• Good art does require immense self-honesty: and it is a courageous act for any artist to be so self-revealing. Yet, we reveal the self to connect with the universal Self in each other as well as ourselves. I do not believe that "poetry is communication;" if poetry was only that, the phone book would be poetry. Yet there is an element of connection between poet and reader, the particulars of shared experience that lead us to mutual understanding.

• A lot of bad art is woundology-based, such as therapy-poems and journal-poems. The worst types of first-person poetry fall into this category, including much confessional lyric: "you have to love my poem so that I can feel loved!" That sort of maneuver, which is all about self-esteem and nothing at all about art-making. Most of my objections to first-person poetry are precisely where they fall into this ego-display, ego-cry-for-help. This does lead to solipsistic poetry, in fact, because in the end, this a poetry for an audience of one.

• Where is the transpersonal in all this? Where is the non-human? Where is the realization that our place in the universe is not necessarily as its most important center or creation? This was the point of Robinson Jeffers' comments about "Inhumanism," which was not in fact anti-humanism, as is the common misunderstanding, but about man's integral place in nature being such that man cannot afford to place himself either above nature, or separate from nature. For that matter, as PL Travers once put it, The word "supernatural" does not need the "super," because it is all included in the natural.

I for one do not think that asking for such a larger vision is at all a selfish act: quite the opposite, in truth.

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into the silence we fade,
a few simple words ringing
through the night air.
the clouds had come down the sky
like a curtain, the hard wind
slashed the lake edge,
driven waves knifing the beach;
boats prowled slowly in the grey past.
now all is still, the moon full and silver
glistening above our lights;
the lake dries her eyes,
tears pooling on the path.
it’s so quiet I can hear you breathe,
the air so cold I feel my skin
crackle and shift like new ice.
we walk like a woman singing
the same words over and over,
bells filling the places between cold stars
by echoing, echoing; we fade,
silent, even our footsteps forgotten
in the endless rush of the waves.
they surge in, ruffling the feathers
of sleeping waterbirds, and breathlessly wander away,
leaving behind little trails of foam
like half-recited words,
unformed poems.
I look at you in the moonlight, the starlight,
and I think things like: forgetfulness;
I could drown in your waters, your chambers,
your echoing, four-beating heart.

This is one of my own favorite poems of mine. Originally written in Madison, WI, when I was living there in the late 80s and early 90s; written probably before 1990, although I forget exactly which year. Some of the images comes from living just two blocks from Lake Mendota, near James Madison Park, on the isthmus.

It was another vision-poem, in that I wrote it before the events it describes actually happened; other poems have happened that way, too. It's like, you see something in your mind's eye, then write it down; then your life grows into it, fills out its shape in the air, and it comes true, in whatever equivocal, almost-unknowable sense we can ever know the truth.

I like this poem's quiet, contemplative tone; underneath, passionate feeling moves, like an underground river. I saw myself walking by the lake, on the park trail, with someone I loved, walking side by side, in silent companionship. After a storm, the air washed clean by rain, the path still wet underfoot. Have you ever noticed how these most profound moments of connection are wordless, inexplicable? They take place in moments of comfortable, companionable silence. I have had many such moments with close friends.

Every poet should know: these words you love so well are to you, in the end, almost useless, or completely useless. They will betray you. Often your best poems will be silent, and unspeakable. Your word-hoard might only be something that cheapens or diminishes the moment. So, if you have this moment, poet, let it be. Leave it alone. Let it be itself.

The rest is silence.


a dream of wings

An older poem, slightly revised. Just cleaning up a few words and phrases, a little compression.

I think of last night's vivid, visionary dreams, as I revise this poem. How often dreams give us images and experiences we can turn into creative work; how much of a gift these dreams can be. How often my own dreams have been fertile material for creative mining, in addition to the spiritual and psychological lessons I receive.

What do dream-images "mean"? The answers are equivocal, mythic and archetypal, rather than clean and dried. They often seem numinous, meaningful, resonant, but without providing answers. It's as if the answers are there, if only we could locate them.

Really—I don't know what the meaning or purpose of life is. But it looks exactly as if something were meant by it. —C.G. Jung

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. —Albert Einstein

dragonfly nymphs
emerging from rocks
unfurl wet wings
airborne till first frost

hulls of cicadas
attached to every tree limb
of the apple orchard
behind the school
where we used to play
starship on the branches

young man climbing
to the high rocks in moonlight
angel wings or dragon wings
emerging from his shoulders

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Magnitude 3.4 Epicenter 38.01N 122.25W

earthslide and waveshift. punches through, a fist of uncertainty, knocking you off your assumptions. each time, a little more liquid; till you assume nothing, and surf. slow waves from the east, through the mountain, and shrugged over the hill. two or three kinds of sound. the crisp surface ripples; the gong tone rebounding inside a bell; the spherical pressure of compression and release that gathers directly, simply. a child-god dropping a bell. deer raise their heads, spread locked knees, and wait. nothing shattered, nothing forged. a solitary cat stares past the eastern trees, towards origin. if you slid into the bay, tonight, today, volitional, arbitrary, you would enter the waters naked, all naked, in mind, blank sheet white mind, more emptied than the world of objects and slaves. this time, you kept your footing, and could restore the illusion of solidity you expect the ground to have. this time, you could pretend it never happened. this time, the scrapers ticked and came to rest again, briefly, paused in their slow flight to the arctic, and the sound behind the northern winds.

In December of 2005, I was sitting at home in Pinoie, CA, writing, when an earthquake rolled through at 10:21 am, centered on the Hercules fault in the San Francisco East Bay Area. It was a very light one. Nothing disturbed. But that sensation of the ground moving under and around you is not something you soon forget. The walls shed a trickle of dust and plaster; the shelves creaked; the birds in the rosebushes outside my window were briefly still, as if waiting. I studied geology in college, and still maintain a strong amateur interest in the field. It's always interesting when geologic time and human time intersect like this, it changes your whole perspective on things.

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dance of gull over cliff,
surge of wave below—

argument about seagrass, the spin,
tidewaters bloom against sun and sand,

seals stalk sun on their rocks offshore,
lifting head and tail when wavesurge
overmatches their anchorage;

I need to breathe this sea-air,
make it a place in my shoes
that I can always walk beside;

constant winds make shouting
waves into spray that coats skin, hair,
very being, layers of gypsum and silt—

how did we achieve this reckoning?
the astrolabe of the sea, a sextant of gulls.

I go back to the sea, I go in by this archway:
worlds opened beneath my feet—

I fill it with soul: waves of gulls rise
to skyfather, attitude of sun on sea.

nothing to be done: this portal, opened,
alight, filled with glittering stars
and acceleration. I had a dream—

it burnt in my hand: two holes in what once
was seafloor to guide my dreaming:
broken teeth and wasted effort.
sun filled me, and the portal

across an envelope of tunnel vision
pelicans fly, small dots in the wiry firmament:
too close to lean into, too far to snow from the air.

I had every intention of dying here.
instead: liberation.

Here am I, then, amid the darkly pitted rock,
myself tectonic, drifting, spurned
                                                    by tide and sea
surrounded, enflamed, ineffectual,
a brace of stones at waterline,
toppled by wave surge into green depths,
sand buried, immaterialized.

I remain alone.

Even the gulls avoid this place of biting flies, where
stars turn in sand sparkle and mirage,
skate across encrusted feet.
An epitaph for crabs.

                The rocks stand, sentinels—
lines of driftwood, wet black of a dog’s nosing—
mark the boundaries, osmotic, permeable,
between this land and another
land made of water.

Red cliffs scale in white mist, shedding
rough marks to become rounded
windstones, portals the wind rushes through
for solace.

I erode.
I become my true self,
that thing I am when all else
is stripped away, burned off, charred,
starved, chemically eaten,
faulted, broken at every joint,
weathered down to nothing,
where what is left at center
is both nothing
and who I truly am.

I come alive.
I am in this moment,
and this moment, and this,
no other moments, no sense
of other times.

Do the gods dwell
only in those who are ready,
prepared, the lineaments
of proper form and ritual all emplaced?
No: the god dwells in everyone,
in everything, immanent,

Pick a name. Any name will do.
I call You by Your true name,
which only I know, since it is
my own name, my inner, secreted Name.
We are these mirrors.

Here in my desert cave,
I stalk you:
relentlessly, without ceasing,
to become that which
we already are.

Written during four days camping at Joshua Tree National Monument, August 2005, where the temperature got into the 100s every afternoon. I spent part of each day in a cave made by boulders falling together, eroded into rounded lumps, providing shelter, and windowed views of the hot, clear sky.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Conrad Aiken, Critical Poet

I periodically delve into reading poets writing criticism and reviews and essays about poetry, and other poets. I find this develops one's own critical faculties, but it's also interesting on a purely social level: what did these poets think of each other?

I'm currently reading, with much pleasure, Hayden Carruth's Selected Essays & Reviews (Copper Canyon Press, 1997), literally several decades of critical writing. I find Carruth to be a congenial read, and while of his opinions parallel my own, I find it instructive when he writes appreciatively of poets I had not paid much attention to before, or, in the case of Paul Goodman, a poet I hadn't thought about in awhile, although I like Goodman's poetry, especially his homoerotic poems scattered through his various collections.

I periodically delve deeper into such collections of reviews, so I have been re-reading Conrad Aiken's Collected Criticism (1968, originally published as A Reviewer's ABC, 1958), which I recommend to everyone who ever reviews or critiques poetry. It is a model of wit, decorum, and civilized discourse: Even his blunt condemnations and strongly-expressed reservations—he is very hard on Amy Lowell and D.H. Lawrence, and rather unconvinced by T.S. Eliot—are done with overall tact and good manners. One might wish more critiques were of this caliber: insightful, honest, blunt, but never rude or capricious.

Aiken never compiled an actual book of systemic literary criticism, other than (possibly) this one. Rather, he discussed his critical ideas in these reviews, in his poems, in occasional essays, and in his letters. So, he has no obvious overarching ideological theory. I find this advantageous. He promotes poetry's musicality and psychological effectiveness, even as he misses the boat on mysticism, but he does it in such a way that even when one disagrees with him, he has made one think carefully about one's own position. THInking about one's own position is the best reason to read other poets' criticism: the mirror of awareness helps one find clarity.

Many of Aiken's quick summations are resonant and long-lasting; they get to the marrow of the matter. hor example, here's a quote on Surrealism that Aiken just throws out in a review of Lorca's Poet in New York, which I find felicitous. Referring to Lorca, Aiken writes:

To call him a surrealist is a mistake, for to be a surrealist is to be something else than a poet, something less than a poet: surrealism is perhaps one of many names, merely, for the substratum out of which poetry is made.

This comment crystallizes for me a feeling I have always had about Surrealism, but had not been able to articulate; (I am still occasionally working on an essay about surrealism, and this will have to go into it.) Surrealism was, in effect an ideology, which as critical stance was used to dictate who was a genuine Surrealist, and who was not. André Breton, in his various manifestoes, was the gatekeepr and strongman of the Surrealist enterprise; so, it was largely Breton, in tandem with the other core members of the original group, who promoted Surrealism as an ideology. The difficulty with ideology in poetry is that when any critical theory becomes dictatorial, the art itself suffers.

I far prefer Aiken's placement of surrealism as "the substratum out of which poetry is made." That is a rich and resonant re-evaluation of an entire artistic movement, putting it into its place as a foundational element of poetic technique, and removing it from its inflated place as a rhetorical ideology.

In this way, we are prepared to look at the genuine full flowering of Surrealism, which, I have been arguing for some years now, attained its full bloom in the Latin American poets, and not in the Francophone poets who began the movement. That's the kernel idea of an essay on Surrealism I've been trying to compile for a few years now; so, more on that later.

Aiken, if one is to infer a critical stance from his reviews, was suspicious of systemic ideology. He was more interested in psychological truth, and musicality, arising from the poem in a genuine manner, and his criticism often displayed a mistrust of art created to adhere to a prescriptive ideology. In this, I very much appreciate Aiken's clarity of critical expression, because my own suspicions of critical ideology mirror many of his.

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The Practicalities of Critique & Criticism 3: Gender

Can you tell if a poem is written by a woman? or a man? Can you tell if a critique is by a man? or a woman? (This applies to general writing life, not just online, I believe.) Do men and women have innately different writing and critique styles? "You have your Robert Frost, and I my Emily Dickenson."

It's a question that comes up every so often. It's based on some underlying assumptions about gender innateness that are problematic, if not downright questionable. Whenever these gender-based discussions come up, I have to bite my tongue a lot, as no matter what I say it tends to start a firestorm. But to be blunt, I think gender determinations in these matters are a load of bollocks. Most assumptions regarding gender determinism are questionable, in fact.

As a poet whose writing is often perceived as experimental, wild, and creative, by this criterion, according to some of these usual assumptions about gender, I'm a woman writer. I get a lot of pedantic "corrections" about grammar and punctuation practically every time I submit a poem for critique. Granted, these mostly come from folks unfamiliar with my writing; and there are many poets, men and women both, who have far more formalist views about punctuation, poetic form, and grammar, than I do myself. (My usual reply to questions of grammar: you can safely assume that my use of punctuation is conscious and deliberate, not haphazard; you can also safely assume that if I break any rules of prose grammar—which haven't a damn thing to do with poetry, anyway—that it was deliberate.) Questions about punctuation and grammar in my poems seem to come equally from men and women critiquers. So much for gender determination.

Having lived in more than one non-Western culture in my lifetime, I have to say (again) that our ideas about gender roles are a load of stereotypes. Back in the pre-technological days, which is where many of these stereotypes originate, there may have been a point to them: men do have greater upper-body strength, and women do have stronger lower bodies; that's self-evident biology. But in this technical era, it's perfectly possible for men and women to be equally adept at, and have equal attitudes about, their activities, because many work-related activities are no longer directly tied to physical ability. It seems obvious that this includes writers—writing if anything, is a cerebral, largely non-physical occupation, so it may be even less likely to be gender-determined. (I'm sorry, but all that neurophysiological theory about gender differences in the brain remains unproven, still only theory.) So, logically, any lingering differences between the sexes, in the critiques they give and the poems they write, are purely cultural and no longer biological (if they ever really were). Most gender differences that have been cited as biologically-based, even as recently as 50 years ago, are in fact cultural rather than innate. My experience living in non-Western cultures has led me to believe that nurture means more than nature, in these and many other situations; because the "rules" about gender roles and actions in non-Western cultures, are incredibly diverse and different. If our women have different intellectual approaches to reading and writing poetry, it's because of the way our culture raises our children. Period.

I see the positioning of "creativity, wild abandon, the original voice of the poet" as itself setting up a gender stereotype, in that it positions the "male critic" as the one most likely to object to the wild, original voice of the poet: in other words, the patriarchy is inherently conservative. Whitman was certainly wild and original; he received many criticisms along these lines, in addition to praise. Since virtually all the published poets writing reviews and critiques at Whitman's time, that seems to imply that some feminine men praised him (Emerson) while others derided him (I'd have to look those names up, as they're largely forgotten). I question if this is an accurate portrayal of literary critiquers, even statistically, since it may well be a case of an observer being sensitized to a trend to the point of exaggeration. (For example, for years I drove a sedan; when I switched to a pickup truck, I suddenly noticed how many trucks were on the road, what make they were, what color, etc. In other words, prior to owning a truck, I was not paying attention to them, even though they were surely there all along. This is a kind of cognitive sorting, of tagged awareness.)

I think the reality here is that critiques do not come from a gender bias except where gender bias overlaps with gender stereotypes. The truth is that grammatical pedantry, for example, comes from a mindset that has little to do with gender, and much more to do with issues relating to self-esteem, personal happiness and security and safety, and fear of the unknown and undiscovered. (I will bite my tongue here, for now, although I have much more to say on this particular aspect of the argument.)

I think that Jung was correct when he said that the fully-human, fully-developed person has integrated both masculine and feminine personality traits in him or herself. To be fully-human, fully-integrated means having both male and female aspects to one's personality, and being in balance with them so that they arise spontaneously and appropriately in whatever situation one finds oneself. Thus, an integrated man can be nurturing caregiver, and an integrated woman can be a take-charge business executive.

Many of my closest friends could be called "third gender" people, even the heterosexual ones, and I mean that in several different ways: for example, one close friend is a straight metrosexual man who is a professional musician and pretty good at interior decorating, and he likes purple (and is not gay); several others are what you'd call "butch fairies," i.e. gay men who know who to use chain saws, lesbians who drive pickup trucks; a few others are what you'd call "femme," effeminate, soft, non-athletic. As a gay-identified pansexual/bisexual male, I drive a pickup truck, know how to use a chainsaw, and yet by the criterion of gender-stereotyped literary criticism I write mostly feminine poetry! So much for gender stereotypes. We all contain contradictions: the path to personal integration is to resolve those contradictions into balanced coexistence.

Perhaps it takes encountering "third gender" alternative(s) first-hand to realize that the binary polarity of male-female roles is itself a reified, cultural construction, and not inherently biological. Nevertheless, it seems obvious to me that binary-polarity gender roles are far more fluid and far less fixed than generally presumed; numerous studies in recent decades validate this concept.

So, while one might indeed believe that there is a difference in the way men and women write, and critique, it is not an essential(ist) one, but rather a cultural one. In other words, the culture produces "subject positions" that we inhabit, or not, in various ways. Simultaneously, even given that there is male privilege in our culture, a sense of entitlement, that is still learned behavior, not something innate about men. Some men happen to enact that entitlement more strongly than others—perhaps because they are more tightly-bound to their tribal upbringings—and they often do so quite unconsciously, assuming that is just the way things are, without ever questioning their upbringing. But I don't think that there is anything inherent to gender that leads to these differences in behavior: this is the hinge-point of the distinction between biological gender and culturally-enacted gender roles.

Rude and harsh critiques are not exclusively male styles of critique; whether they come from a man or a woman poet, they have everything to do with that person's lack of social graces, and their probable lack of self-confidence as poet and critic. If there is any gender difference involved, again it's cultural, because women in Western culture have traditionally been taught to keep such rude thoughts to themselves because it's not "ladylike."

Books like John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus series are a load of bollocks because all he does is recycle and re-emphasize culturally-based "traditional" gender stereotypes. I've read two of his books, and although he makes pains to say that his ideas are based on observation rather than a priori assumption, he cops out by providing not a single androgynous alternative, but only replays all the existing stereotypes. His observations are of those who are already inculcated in gender stereotypes, and his conclusions are therefore culturally normative and culturally reaffirming. He remains locked in binary-polarity thinking about gender, and ignores the broader range of gender enactment that Kinsey and others actually observed. This is what makes Gray's books regressive: despite his protestations to the contrary, they are ideological, not analytical. On the other hand, if you desire to have on hand a detailed list of normative cultural gender stereotypes, for research purposes, Gray's books are useful.

The cultural assumptions about gender obscure what is actually present in sexual difference, in its purely biological sense: sexual dimorphism, the biological observation that there are two and only two sexes—thus must be only two genders. In fact, this is demonstrably not the case. Sex is governed by several factors: genital, gonadal, hormonal, chromosomal, etc. There is, therefore, more of a spectrum, or continuum, to sexuality than we normally imagine. In John Gray's recycling of cultural assumptions (and not only in his), most people think that there are only two sexes; two only, and never the twain shall meet. (The whole point of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus to achieve communication between two opposites who cannot normally communicate with each other.) This assumption about dimorphic, bipolar gender arises because of the cultural conditioning that begins with early infancy, and is mandatorily reinforced in most educational settings. By the time we reach adulthood, we are thoroughly conditioned to see things this way—and books like Gray's depend on this conditioning for their existence, but also reinforce it. Only a few individuals escape this conditioning unscathed, and they are usually outcasts in some way or another—sexually, culturally, tribally, familially, etc.

It may be argued at this point that I am demonstrating the triumph of the idea of cultural constructivism over essentialism. That is true, as far as it goes. Yet I note that most gender theorists who argue for essentialism have little or no experience living in or studying other (non-Western) cultures, or even third-gender cultures within their own home culture.

Here's a few books I recommend for those interested in pursuing third-gender or alternative-gender studies, as an antidote to the strong bipolar bias most arguments about gender fall into:

Tim Bergling: Sissyphobia: Gay men and effeminate behavior

Suzanne Pharr: Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism

David Lowenthal: The Past is a Foreign Country

In the end this may be all about the poet's voice. The voice has many elements, only some of which may be assignable to gender.

Keeping in mind the constructions of culture: with that caveat, maybe some themes or motifs are more feminine, while others are more masculine. But a feminine or masculine motif can be expressed in any poetic voice. Flowers and baby things might be assumed to be culturally feminine, but any voice can express them. Perhaps, then, voice in poetry has no gender, although individual motifs might.

It’s been said that it takes many years to find your own unique voice as a writer, as a poet. The voice, when found, may be as likely to contain one element of poetry as any another: as likely to be lyrical as narrative, urban as pastoral, broadly satiric as confessional.

No two mature poetic voices are likely to be the same, whether they are two men or two women, or man and woman.

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Weak Spots

What are your weak spots, as a poet? I mean, technically, in terms of poetics: craft weaknesses; topical blind spots. General or specific areas of weakness. Some poets can begin and end a poem well, but their middle-poems go slack. Other poets let their poems peter out to nothing, losing energy and direction as they go. Actually, slackness is a big problem in contemporary poetry, in general. Some poets are unable to perceive as poetry any writing that is not metered and rhymed; they foam at the mouth denying the relevance of blank verse, free verse, the prose-poem. Other poets, perhaps in rebellion to their more conservative heirs, feel the opposite: that meter and rhyme are the dead past, and the modern poem must be unrhymed and prosaic. Both of these viewpoints generate extremism; it seems to me that many of the extreme viewpoints are psychologically-motivated, and have little to do with the actual act of writing poetry: they are ideologies, or literary-critical theorems presented as ideologies.

I have a personal response to the question of weak spots, and also several more general responses. I'll begin with the personal.

I'm first and foremost a musician, so I perceive musical qualities in poetry as being in the foreground. This means that the musicality of the line is often very present in my awareness. As a result, I often cannot hear classical meter or rhyme without them getting rapidly sing-songy, which just irritates me to distraction. de DAH de DAH de DAH de DAH ed DAH — bleah! Drives me up a wall. I tend to hear most unsubtly metered and end-rhymed poetry as either imitation-music, or bad music, or lyrics in search of a song. There are numerous poets out there who have no musicality whatsoever, that's true. But there are just as many neo-formalist zealots whose ideas of musicality are ham-fisted and crude: they bludgeon you with end-rhyme and meter, they use unnecessary adjectives, just to force the line to fit the form, and so forth.

Here's the truth: all poetry, even prose-poems, contains rhythm and rhyme, melody and phrase: of all literary forms, the language of poetry is surely the most musical in nature. (Of course, great prose is also musical in its own way; defining a boundary between great poetry and great prose can be problematic.) But the elements of musicality can be used subtly: embedded internal rhymes, slant-rhyme and off-rhyme, alliteration; the rhythm of everyday speech, raised a level or two into musical speech. Sometimes that means finding a more musical syntax than the purely prose rules of grammars would allow. Modern free verse and blank verse have their own internal music, when done well.

I look to Shakespeare as an example of how to do this well. I have John Giedgud's readings of The Complete Sonnets (two CDs), and you can hear from Gielgud's readings how Shakespeare makes the sentences and pauses move across the rhyme and meter, so that often it sounds like high-flung prose. The end-rhymes become internal rhymes because the sentences are placed across the line. The first mistake most ham-fisted formalists make is to always end their phrases and sentences at the end of the line: this only exaggerates the end-rhyme. I suppose it takes a dramatist's ear for nuanced speech, to pull this off. So many imitate this, and fail. One of the only modern playwrights who could pull this off was Christopher Fry; his The Lady's Not for Burning is a masterful example. So for that matter is Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.

One of the only poets who can pull off sing-songy rhyme and meter without it becoming tedious is Longfellow. Mike Oldfield set a long section of Hiawatha to musical chant as one section of his large work Incantations, and it works beautifully. It brings into the foreground Longfellow's feel for musical phrase and rhythm, in a way that never gets tiresome.

As a poet, another weakness I admit to is that I have little feeling for the poetic epic. I am capable of getting immersed and never losing attention in a several-hundred-page-long novel. Yet long poetic epics can't hold my attention so well. The problem is often that novelistic discourses into description and philosophy, in a long epic narrative poem, can kill the epic's momentum. If you're going to attempt narrative, be propulsive. If you're going to write stream-of-consciousness, the epic poem may not be the best fit, in terms of form.

To hear long poems well, I go back to the source, the Homeric Hymns; Alfred North's study of epic song, The Singer of Tales, proved that Homer's epics were sung and chanted to music, not recited as voice-only text. If I have a limitation here, or a weak spot—and I'm not fully convinced that it is a weak spot—it's the feeling that most poetry works better when set to music. As every songwriter knows, you can get away with more, when the words are set to music.

So, if I have an overarching weak spot, it's that for me the musical line in a poem really makes it or breaks it.

Here's another weak area I see many contemporary poets share: they don't perform their poems well.

In my experience from numerous poetry readings over recent years, and poetry performances (and there is a difference), most poets are shoe-gazers who kill their own poetry when they read it aloud. That's because most poets read their poems in a flat monotone, with almost no sense of rhythm, or music (ahem), or performance. They know what the words in the poem are very well, having written them, and they tend to forget, perhaps out of nervousness, that the audience has never heard those words before. I find this to be true of all genres of poetry, formal or free. It's a problem of performance, and it reflects the contemporary situation in which "spoken word" has become divorced from mainstream poetry.

I was in a band for ten years called Dangerous Odds, that featured two core poets and four or five core musicians, plus invited guests. The music was spontaneously improvised to accompany the poetry performances. Both of our core poets were like jazz players, they had a sense of timing in their declamation, and the lingering over a word or phrase to give it special meaning and attention. They would even repeat a line at times, because they knew the importance of dramatically conveying even the most abstract poem about particle physics or chaos theory required a dramatic performance.

Here's a recording of one of these poets, the late Dr. Larry Giles, reading his poem Clocks in Chaos from his book The Chaos Poems before a live audience; listen to how Larry phrases, pauses, turns the tempo up or down, at will.

When we had guest poets at live or radiobroadcast gigs, the contrast was immediately noticeable: most poets (with rare and wonderful exceptions) rushed through, breathlessly, without pacing or rhythm, as though they were nervously shouting prose into a hurricane. They read their poems too fast, usually, probably from nerves, and the musicians then never got a chance to develop any ideas very far; it's like coitus interruptus when that happens, very frustrating to the musicians, who never get to go very far with an idea before having to abandon it for something else. No matter what the theme or tone of the piece, these poets didn't respond to the music responding to them, creating that lovely feedback loop of performance intention, and let's use the word now—acting—that was required. By contrast, you can hear the band behind Larry in the piece above having the time to stretch out and really go with a musical idea, in tandem with the poet, not fighting against him: a true collaboration.

Most poets, even those poets who claim to read their work out loud to listen for rhythm and music, in my experience, still kill their poems when they read them aloud. We get too close to the words, and we care too much about the linguistic meanings of the words, and forget to be performers. Dylan Thomas was one of the rare exceptions to this near-universal practice; listening to him reading his work is spellbinding.

As a result, I've gone out of my way to try to read my own poems, when I do read them, with a sense of performance supporting them. Not that I'm very good at it, but at least I'm thinking about it. It gets back to that musicality thing.

Now, the question might be asked, can one read non-metered, non-rhymed poetry like this? Absolutely. (I have the recordings to prove it. Several CDs worth of Dangerous Odds, for starters.) Thinking that only formalist, metered, rhymed poetry can be musical—which is an assumption I think many poets fall into by default of ignorance—is not only erroneous, it's pernicious. It's like equating music only with popular song ballad forms, which is a very narrow, very limited window onto what music is, was, and can be.

Another thing one can learn from Shakespeare's Sonnets: to enjamb where it makes sense to enjamb, and to follow the form where necessary, but to let the breath and the sentence play against the enjambment when necessary. And, thereafter, to read the poem as heightened speech, and not arbitrarily make breath-stops at the end of every line unless the phrase or sentence specifically tellls you to. Look again how in the Sonnets, sentences spiral around the end-rhymes so that they become heard as internal rhymes, not sing-songy stop-rhymes.

So, I think it's a nearly universal weak spot among poets to stop short of considering the musical side of their poetry, especially when performing it aloud.

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Poets as Introverts

I think two kinds of people become poets. Extroverts who go out and entertain the family friends, and introverts who hide in the bedroom and put what they write under the mattress. Allen Ginsberg, I imagine, was the first kind; I was the second. For me, words were not about pleasing or entertaining others but about creating a place of refuge, where I could find something out about what it means to have and be a self. —Jane Hirshfield, in a recent interview

Do introverts make the best poets? That's a theme that seems to keep coming up lately. I think a lot of poets would say, Yes. But I wonder. I think that might a skewed viewpoint, a biased opinion based on a subjective sampling. Writing is a solitary act, for the most part; which might skew the percentages of writers being introverts, as one might imagine that typical introverts might be drawn towards solitary occuaptions in general. But how genuinely introverted is it, after all, to publish one's thoughts and dreams, and poems, in print or online? I've been browsing through a lot of opinions about what makes a great poet, and so far I've found good poets of almost every personality type, in every occupation, style, era, and language. Good poets seem to turn up as a minority in virtually all other categories; I know of no statistical studies disproving this impression.

I think perhaps the ultimate qualities that make a great poet are persistence coupled with discipline and talent. If you're not persistent, all the talent in the world will remain unknown. If you're not disciplined, your talent will remain raw, undeveloped, and possibly useless; discipline is the training of talent to run in harness; the technical aspects of craft support talent by honing and polishing it. If you're not gifted with an innate talent, all the persistence and discipline and technical craft in the world won't make you a better poet.

It's perhaps a sign of the times, but a lot of well-known published poets fall into this latter category: very persistent, very disciplined, but with nothing really interesting to say, and no talent, no vision, to build on; thus, we get a lot of poems about nothing very much. Sound familiar? It's the oft-lamented state of contemporary poetry in print.

On the Meyers-Briggs psychology test, which is based on Jung's ideas of the psyche being a balanced mandala of typologies, I tested out as INF/TP. Introspective, Intuitive, Feeling/Thinking, Perceptive. Now, that's a little unusual, but it's true: I tested exactly 50/50 on the Feeling/Thinking part of the typology spectrum. Most folks in my category are INFPs, or INTPs; as I do in so many other areas of my life, I straddle a boundary, I stand on both sides of seemingly disparate categories. (It's a long list; maybe I'll share it someday.)

I'll tell you one thing. I've hung out with groups of INFPs, and several of my closest friends are INFPs. And I find it tedious when the vast majority of people in this typology spend a lot of time talking about what's going on inside their minds and hearts, but not acting on them. In yet another way that I tend to straddle boundaries, with one foot in each world, I tend to be contrarian at times: with people who talk too much, I want to act; with people who never think about their actions beforehand, I want to think first. (I do tend to think "outside the box," most of the time.) So, I don't feel entirely comfortable with my fellow INFPs; sometimes I just want them to stop throwing words around, and get out there, take a walk, and clear the mind through physical action. A little walking meditation goes a very long way, if you spend far too much in your head, on a daily basis.

I'm what Jung called a compensated introvert. In his typology schema, every person contains all the typologies, but one of each pair is usually more developed, or more dominant or prominent, or more "innate" to the person. But the goal of the opus, the work of self-development, is to bring all the undeveloped aspects of the self into awareness, and integrate them with their more-developed counterparts. An introvert who learns to develop and integrate his or her "inner extravert" is called a compensated introvert.

This means that I am naturally shy, but I have learned to be comfortable in public situations. For example: I was terribly stricken with stage-fright in my early life, and my first piano recital, circa age 7 or 8, was paralyzing; but in the years since then, I have performed music in public situations so many hundreds or thousands of times that I feel very comfortable onstage. I might be aware of nerves of shyness, when I pick up the mic to address the audience, but I'm able to speak anyway. Years of doing community radio also helped with that: speaking to the invisible but listening audience. I've also given papers at academic conferences, talked as an activist at speakers' bureaus, and other situations. I've worked hard at finding this balance; I can do it, but it remains a varying amount of effort, each time I do it. I can, for example, be a good salesman in retail—but it requires so much effort, that I rarely enjoy doing it; so, I tend not to want to, and don't.

By the way, that's not a bad way to locate your own undeveloped attributes: locate the things that it takes a huge effort for you to maintain, or even attempt, and chances are, they are typical of your undeveloped self.

Given the ability to indulge my personal preferences, I could easily be a hermit, a monk in the woods, only speaking to other people every few days. Some mornings it's an effort to be civil, or even articulate. I require large amounts of silence and solitude, in order to maintain my mental equilibrium; and hour or so a day is best. I usually take my solitary time in the morning, and again right before bed. These are also often my most creative times.

I think it is patently true that there are good introvert poets, and bad introvert poets; and there are good extravert poets, and bad extravert poets. And, as in every other category, the bad outnumber the good.

The thing is: I would require convincing that the greatest poets were all introverts. While Rilke certainly was, Rumi and Whitman and Ginsberg were all likely extraverts; or at least, compensated introverts. A great writer who was a compensated extravert was Hemingway. Dylan Thomas was most likely an extravert; i think it's likely that so are many other poets who spend a great deal of time reciting, performing, or declaiming their poetry. Thomas Merton was a compensated introvert, I am convinced; it's how he balanced his cloistered hermit's life with a writer's engagement with world affairs and the history of religions. I'm sure we can all think of many more examples, given some thought.

Maybe the truth is that all the great poets are integrated human beings, compensated and internally balanced. So that whichever direction they come from, they have found the center point, where all opposites merge. Thus, they can speak their private hearts; they can relate their wild, wild nights; they can have moments of calm introspection in which they enact the solitary act of writing, even though their daily life is quite open and leonine. The balance of opposites, the integration of those undeveloped parts of the self: these are more likely to create a well-rounded person, and a creatively-enabled person.

Update: Just to be clear, since I'm getting mail about it: I don't really agree with most categorizations. I think one must deal with the whole person. We can list things that we are and do, but the sum is synergistically greater than the sum of all the parts.

For example, I am a writer, a musician, an artist, a son, a gay man who has also had successful love relationships with women, a brother, a lover, a mystic and visionary, an introvert, a person who does his best thinking on long cross-country drives or lying naked on the couch first thing in the morning, a chef, an avid and voarcious reader who retains most of what he reads, a skilled and geeky graphic designer, a computer jockey, an experienced outdoorsman and primitive wilderness camper, etc. etc. None of these are who I am, though. They are aspects of the Self, and expressions of the self, but not determinative of the self. The whole person is more than just the categories. I contain multitudes, I am myself.

So, use such categorizing systems as the Meyers-Briggs to learn more about yourself, but don't imagine that they tell you all there is to know about yourself. That work of self-exploration, self-study, and self-development is the opus, the work that Jungians describe. It involves going into those parts of ourselves we may not at first like or appreciate, what Jung called the Shadow, the undiscovered self.

To read more about Jung's ideas that started this whole typology-analysis system, and upon which Meyers-Briggs is based, I recommend starting with his book Psychological Types.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Framedrummers' Group CD Re-released Online

The Framedrummers' Group CD project, originally released in 2003 and now out of print and only available as a collector's item, has been re-released online as part of the FDG website. There's a nifty jukebox that plays the contents of both of the CDs in the original 2-CD set, and the CD artwork (some of which is by yours truly) is also featured on the webpage. This was a CD compilation made by members of the FDG group, and was one of the first such compilations made by an online group like this.

I have two tracks on this compilation, a single track on either CD, and both of my tracks feature Stick, frame drums, flutes, and keyboards. On one track, Rumi's Tambourine, I also read a couple of short excerpts from poems by Rumi that are about music, and drumming. On the FDG page, there's also a nifty picture of me playing Stick and wearing my fez.

You can also access these two tracks here.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Bad Design Has No Excuse

I made my living for around 20 years as a graphic artist, designer, typographer, and so forth, working in the book and magazine publishing, design, marketing, and advertising fields. One of the reasons I have been pursuing my fine art work for the past few years is that much of the book design work I had been doing dried up, except for the occasional freelance project. I am an expert in most desktop-publishing software on both Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows platforms, plus I'm learning UNIX. Through hard experience, I can fix a lot of computers when they break down; it's like with your car, once something breaks, you learn how to fix that something. I started doing computer-based typography and page layout in 1982, fresh out of music school, before the personal computer even existed, except for hobbyists and experts. I started using Adobe Photoshop with version 1.5, and I started using both PageMaker and Quark XPress with versions 1.0. I design my own typefaces. In fact, I have on occasion been paid handsomely to design typefaces, then design the books those typefaces were used in. I read books on typography and design for fun. I can identify a huge number of typefaces at a glance, and I can tell you who most of the greatest designers of the 1900s were, and what they did. I can even tell you who most of the so-called celebrity designers were, too, in the post-Warholian world, although not all the celebrity designers were necessarily good designers. I can also tell you where graphic design and fine art overlap, and where they don't.

In other words, I am a bona fide computer-aided-design geek.

So, here's what I have to say about design:

Most design is bad design.

Most of what you are exposed to on a daily basis has been designed by somebody. You think those logos and moving graphics on the TV news shows just magically appeared? No: someone designed them. Everything you ever see on TV was designed; somedbosy had to create it and shape it. Just as someone designed, and probably illustrated, every piece of packaging for every item you've ever bought at the supermarket or department store, or ever will. Somebody designed the roads you drive on, and somebody designed the car you drive. Most such design is done in teams, with a lead art director or engineer guiding the team. Even commercial illustration is a team effort, with the illustrator being hired by an art director, both of whom need to please the client. Advertising can be a field full of creativity and excitement; it can also be the most deadening and stifling job imaginable. Which of those it is depends a lot on the client you're working for. Working in design and illustration for corporate positions for as lone as I did, has made me probably unfit to ever work as a paid employee for a large corporation, ever again: I am no longer able to work for people less intelligent than myself, without opening my mouth and getting myself into trouble.

Your life is completely immersed in design, and most of the time you don't even notice it. Does a fish notice that it's breathing water? Not usually: it just breathes. Your immersion in design, in our technological society, is so total that most folks never pay it any attention. Even this website you're reading right now was designed; granted, it's built on a template, but I tweaked the template, because I wanted to, because I know how to, and because I can. And, it's fun.

My main website,, was hand-coded, hand-built, and hand-assembled by yours truly, designed from scratch, illustrated with my original photography and artwork, and assembled using very simple HTML code that doesn't even require sophisticated tools to generate (although I do have very sophisticated tools at hand). The typeface used on the banners and navigation buttons was a typeface I designed. So, it's a completely hand-made website, not a template off the shelf. I did it that way because I wanted to, because I know how to, and because I can. And, it's fun.

The problem is: most of the design you are enveloped in is bad design. The best one can say about a lot of design is that it's thoughtless, or indifferent. The worst one can say about it, well, it's beyond thoughtless, it's actively stupid and insane.

Design is a public activity. As such, it is often political, whether or not it intends to be. Materials produced in the so-called free-market capital sector are not free of ideology, even when they claim to be. The ideology they all share, even if they are otherwise non-political, is the assumption that it's good to make a profit from selling your product. Self-advertising is still advertising—and every artist, every creative person seeking to earn some of their living from their creativity must self-advertise. There's nothing morally wrong with any of this, it's just the way the system is currently set up to operate. (Again, like a fish who is breathing water, most folks don't consider that this doesn't mean that it's a natural system, the only possible system, or even the best system. It is, however, the current system.)

So, design can be political, although it doesn't have to be. I only mention this to warn you against those designers who would try to convince you design is always value-neutral. Sometimes it is, and often it isn't. Design can be very expressive of values, and also very subversive.

Most design that you see online is made by people who don't know what they're doing. The worst offense in web design is to overload your webpage with so many dingleberries that it takes forever to load. Sure, all those animated GIFs are cute, and fun, and addictive. But the more of that you put on there, the slower your page will be to load. I can point you to webpages that load instanteously, provide clean and easy navigation, and are models of clean and clear information-transmission: that is what good design does. I can also point you to webpages where there is so much crap, it can take you literally 2 minutes to load the homepage—and that is with a high-speed connection. The vast majority of homepages suffer from this problem. Most homepages on MySpace suffer from terminal clutter. Unfortunately, so do most blogs on most servers, including this one.

Good design is simple, clean, clear, easy to navigate, and doesn't get in between the reader and the content. It's incredibly easy to use good design principles in everything you do. It's merely lazy not to do so.

Elegance is a form of simplicity: using no more than you need, to get the desired result. Elegance in design is essential to creating good design.

How did this state of affairs come about?

Well, here's the truth: bad design has always been more prevalent than good design. (Just as there are always more bad poems than good, at any given time.) But with the invention of technologies that put communication, and design, in the hands of the everyday person, suddenly everyone was a designer, everyone was a typographer, everyone was an artist—or they thought they were. This happened with the first wave of personal-publishing technology, with the desktop-publishing revolution sparked by the invention of the mass-market personal computer. Now it is happening again, with the growth of the Internet, the blogosphere, and the development of online quasi-communities such as MySpace, and all the rest. Everything thinks that they can create a great webpage, a great newsletter, a great chapbook; but the truth is, most folks have no clue about design, or page layout, or the proper use of typography, or how form affects content. (Which is what design is all about: useful content in the container of form.)

Well, just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.

Helvetica used to be a beautiful, useful typeface. By now, though, because it is one of that small group of typefaces that appeared on every computer's type menu since the beginning of desktop publishing, Helvetica has become overused, in so many bad applications, both online and in print, that it hurts to look at it. It's become bland and boring. It's become painful, because it is used with consideration or care, but just as a default sans-serif typeface that everybody has, and everybody uses. Most folks use their default typefaces without ever thinking about them. But then, most folks are not really designers, because a designer would never be so unconscious of what they werer doing, when it came to type, presentation, layout, etc.

So: have a heart. Think about what you're presenting, and how you're presenting it. Think about look and feel. Don't post a hundred dingleberries on your blog, or your homepage, then pretend to be baffled when folks complain about long load-times. That's either ignorant, or disingenuous. One can forgive a lot of things that are done out of ignorance, or stupidity; but ignorance, at least, is curable. Self-education doesn't really take much effort, after all; and it's fun. Laziness, on the other hand, has no excuse.

In other words, pay attention to what you're doing. If you still go ahead and do it after thinking about it, that's fine, but at least think about it first. Most civilizations crumble because not enough people are paying conscious attention to the infrastructure, until it's too late to fix it.

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