by Carlo Parcelli

"The way that can be called the Way is in the way."------attributed to an anonymous Taoist crank

     Selling intelligent books in America is a grim enough way to begin any day, but this morning a dead body was found in the alleyway behind the row of buildings that includes my used bookstore. Word on the street is that it was a suicide. I stare out the window at the cops gathered across the street, when the phone rings. It’s Mark Scroggins. Mark is a contributing editor to FlashPøint. Mark is also a Zukofsky scholar and proponent of modernist poetics that we at FlashPøint regard as the most valuable literary form of the twentieth century. Mark is calling me to let me know that he will not be able to attend tonight’s editorial meeting. Our conversation stumbles (I have the suicide on my mind) toward Bob Perelman’s book, The Trouble With Genius, that Mark is reviewing for the first issue of FlashPøint. [This review of the Perelman and two other books, "Dogmatic Gossip," will appear in a later release of FlashPøint-on-line.] Tired and distracted, I remark that Perelman’s book seems petulant and fragmented. Mark answers appropriately with a flat "whatever." We hang up. I think about Perelman’s attack on Pound and Joyce, wondering why these academic poodles persist in yapping at the heels of writers whose literary legacy is already assured. After all, America’s twentieth-century poetic Mount Rushmore looks like Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Phil N. LeBlanc. The virtues of such a cast are not above consideration, but Perelman is no Diogenes of Sinope.

     Later, at the editorial meeting, Jack Foley, our fiction editor, interrupts my weekly rant to ask me, "When has poetry ever mattered to the American public?" I reply that this is not the point. I spend my days trying to hawk what I call with some embarrassment ‘scholarly’ books. Rhetorically, these kinds of books are needed to redeem American culture and rejuvenate its collective will. William Bennett will tell you this is so. Harold Bloom will tell you this is so. Alan Bloom would tell you this is so if he weren’t busy defending Plato to Pluto. I’m certain that for the right price Charleton Heston would gum a few words about the importance of reading Adam Smith or Leo Strauss. Meanwhile, Alexis de Tocqueville and Henry Adams have undergone renaissances at library deacquisition sales as yet another consumer wave of Americans realize that they can’t hold a thought long enough for the extra point and begin to sense that Newt Gingrich’s reading lists are distractions intended to conceal the juggernaut of corporate theft. But all the bullshit about what the public needs to read so that they can re-hallucinate the country’s Golden Age has highlighted a defining psycho-pathological quality that is peculiarly American. Americans believe that they can acquire knowledge osmotically. Americans believe that they can intuit history. They know, for instance, that if a politician exudes an aw-shucks, down-home, how’s-it-hangin’, the-buck-stops-here artlessness, fabricated by a New York P.R. firm, that the pol drooling this nonsense must be honest beyond reproach and not just some corporate stooge as common sense dictates. Americans can intuit everything they need to live their corpulent existences and what they can’t intuit simply doesn’t have enough commercial appeal to deserve to live anyway. Of course, Americans pride themselves on their ignorance. It reflects their break with the overly complicated intellectual tradition of Europe. Americans’ ignorance provides the lacuna for their tradition of manifest destiny and the wanton murder of tens of millions of people worldwide so that a Michael ‘Milkem’ can receive a standing ovation from 300 bigoted, church-goin’, alcoholic, secretary-diddlin’ CEOs and $50,000,000 for conspiring with Ted Turner to commit future enormities. Like corporate debt, ignorance’s true value is that it legitimates bankruptcy. For example, rugged individualism, once the preserve of unfettered olfactory communication, is now encrypted under levels of aphroditic, hermaphroditic or trogloditic deodorants. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poems are odorless and contain absolutely no encrypted message. This leaves quite a sensibility gap between the Bob Perelmans of the world and the average citizen. Literary academics, with their baroque aesthetic ambitions and the general population with their pundits of profit and technological barkers, do not even seem to suspect the others' existence.

     Even as the likes of Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and Stevens continue to heap bread on the table of the academics, the academics in turn scribble their analyses on the walls in which they dwell. I have no problem with this. But when the academic mind sets out to deface monuments, the exercise is, well, academic. Nobody has the talent to demolish modernism by praxis. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets have demonstrated a talent for public relations, petulantly attacking modernism while shamelessly promoting each other’s work. The result is graffiti onanized into place, invisible to the public. Their greatest accomplishment is insinuating themselves into teaching positions at universities. Academics in the humanities are a luxury that does not give pleasure to the public at large. It’s even money whether or not the authoritarians when they take complete control will even bother to curb the activity of academic poets and critics. Certainly such junk yard dogs as Gunga Dinesh, Charles ‘Pass the Mayo’ Murray, Newt Groinitch, Jesse ‘the Anti-Christ’ Helms, ‘Sanctimonious’ Bill the Pseudo-Bennettficent, and unlettered scientists such as Frank Tipler, blitherer of The Physics of Immortality, Edward Teller, Marvin Minsky and other A.I. charlatans, or Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, scribblers of Higher Superstition, have demonstrated a willingness to hold show trials for performance artists, post-modernists, advocates for the disenfranchised or anyone that would interject humanist discourse into the present juggernaut of greed and murder. But while we await the day when the stooges of capital will have the opportunity to turn the Rose Bowl into a latter day Colosseum where endangered species like the Bengal Tiger, the North American Grizzly, or the chicken-hawk of Henry Taylor’s prize-winning poem can demonstrate to Mr. Taylor what their quaint animal cries are all about, it is also questionable whether the fascists of fungible debt or the extant catalogue of carnivores would bother with the bland Mr. Taylor. Unlike performance artists and post-modernist intellectuals, academic poets are not considered much of a threat. They are a barely tolerated muzzle at the public trough.

     In the everyday praxis of professor poets, the moderns seem like odd targets for academic trivial pursuits. Ezra Pound, modernism’s point man, rubbed his eyes one fine Philadelphia morning and realized that in America his chosen avocation was considered as worthless as an Indian’s opinion. In 1939, Senator Borah told the poet: "Well, I’m sure I don’t know what a man like you would find to DO here." Pound, having gotten the message, skipped from London to Paris to Rapallo and, finally, into the delusional grip of Mussolini. None to his credit, Pound found dictators more to his taste than ‘perfessers’. Though Pound in particular and the moderns in general did not have much use for the academy, the academy sure has made use of them. The sheer output and ambition of their works, along with its highly allusive style, has gone far to solve the unemployment problem among literary academics. The moderns were crosscultural and interdisciplinarian. Their energy was always reaching, bringing in more and more material for poetic scrutiny and, in the process, expanding the authority of poetry. But this sort of autodidacticism and broad synthesis is anathema to academic orthodoxy. Literature departments, the custodians of modernist poetry, have done their best to diminish the moderns by scholarly autopsy. The university cannot function as a hothouse for the generous shapes of modernism. Academic exegesis is too formal and constrained. Academics practice forensic literature and literature departments function as morgues, especially when it comes to the booming ontologies that the moderns left us. Some of the ‘perfesser’ poets, especially of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E persuasion, think that they can whip themselves into some commensurate orbit by exploiting the force of the reviled moderns. Some think they can supplant modernism by critical will alone. Well, I’m out here on the killing floor everyday, boys and girls, and that is a laugh. They are simply playing the Maenads to the moderns’ Orpheus.

     But not all academic poets exploit the moderns for personal gain. There is the ubiquitous school of ‘perfesser’ poets variously known as the ‘Lawn Mower Poets’, the ‘Simpering Sonneteers’ or the ‘I-I-ME-ME-I-ME Advanced School of Navel Studies.’ Their only referent is his or her upper-middle class sentimentalized "personal crisis" -- hairline, waistline, on-line, supermarket line, whatever. In MFA programs, they don’t cover the moderns; they don’t go that far back. They forget that one of their founding fathers, Robert Lowell, was brutally self-critical, possessed a profound knowledge of history, a humane political conscience, and was mad. If you lack any of the above attributes, don’t try this at home, kids. The other, William Carlos Williams, founded modernist bashing when he realized that Eliot, Pound, and Joyce were just plain smarter than he was and over there in Europe brains counted for something. If brains caught on in America nobody would give Ol’ Doctor Bill a second look. But one suspects Bill knew there was no chance of that.

     Later the same day, I get a call from Joe Brennan, FlashPøint’s poetry editor. I mention Mark Scroggin’s phone call with particular emphasis on some critical comments Ron Silliman made about modernist poetry over the Teen-Chat Line of the nineties known as the Internet. Joe points out that for all the Marxist theory informing Silliman’s work and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets in general, he’s never seen their names on an op-ed anywhere. Joe reminds me that for the three years he, Rosalie Gancie (FlashPøint’s art editor), and I did a weekly alternative news program, which involved our using more than 80 left wing journals, not once can we recall encountering any article by any L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E guerrilla; not about Iran-Contra, not about the invasion of Panama, not about COINTELPRO, not about capital punishment, not about the Savings and Loan Scandal, not about the murderous Reagan/Bush policy toward Central America, not about the Gulf War. We didn’t see them protesting in front of the Salvadoran embassy along with CISPES and our cameras on cold, wet mornings with INS pricks scowling from behind tinted windshields in unmarked cars. We don’t recall seeing them at Anti-Vietnam War rallies (or for that matter blinking down a rat hole at Cu Chi) when so many of the mainstream poets they would now sneer at were getting their heads pulped.

     The day wears on at the bookstore as I patiently wait for the Western Canon to catch fire among the general population that Alexis de Tocqueville once characterized as "the least independent of mind" of all the world’s peoples he had so far encountered. I work myself into a frenzy of anticipation that today will be the day that Americans awake from marketing mesmerization and throw their fat in the direction of knowledge, specifically that knowledge contained in the books that surround me: the works of Robert Musil, Anna Akhmatova, Samuel Beckett, W.K.C. Guthrie, Mies Van Der Rohe, Niels Bohr, Hannah Arendt, Jackson Pollack, Ludwig Wittgenstein et al, ready and waiting to fuel the intellectual passion supposedly fired by corporate flunkies like Newt Gingrich, William Bennett, and William Buckley.

     Disappointed, I distract myself and pick up a collection of poetry called The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets. Immediately, I see the names of poets who have made public and political statements: Katha Pollitt, Ai, Carolyn Forché. But with equal immediacy, the problems surrounding subjectivity that so exercise the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets are manifested in every turn of phrase. Allow me to demonstrate by simply quoting the opening line or lines of the first poems to appear by various poets in the aforementioned anthology. Bear in mind I have limited myself to the first line or lines of the first poem only, and each quote is by a different poet.

Saturday morning,
lying on the couch, I think:
a boy like an angel will save me.

From my couch I rise, afire

Out of my clothes, I ran past the boathouse

The sauce thickens. I add more butter

I send your own words back

All night long rain encloses the house
and I wake...

In the dating bar, the potted ferns lean down/ conspiratorially,

No one’s dancing here tonight
Wouldn’t you know it.

Tonight I want to say something wonderful

One of these days under the white
clouds onto the white
lines of the goddamn PED
X ING I shall be flattened, Fluff from his lap robe hangs in a rift
in the curtains, as his eyes un-gum.

The pleasures I took from life
were the simple things

If I could start my life again,
I’d keep a notebook

Silent, my jaws working, I knew

An egg won’t roll well
nor a chicken fly far:

Mornings, from my upstairs window, I can
see a gray Stand of birch...

I am the boy perched in the high
branches of a flamboyant tree,

An afternoon in sultry summer.
After swimming, I slept on the long divan,

Who could be smaller than this child
on the four-horse carousel which plays

When he was my age he was already a boy

Last night I dreamed I was the first man to love a woman I want you to see me in it.

I live in a stone house in the high mountains,

Is no one awake yet this cold cold winter morn?
I am.

What was it I wonder?

You keep me waiting in a truck

I send your own words back

I throw things away

I don’t remember the name of the story,

He took her one day
under the blue horizon

She sinks
into the tub of herself
up to the neck,

     These quotes have a great deal in common. Indeed they have so much in common that de Tocqueville’s quip about the conformity of the American citizenry seems equally to apply to its poets. Aside from the poems' being uniformly torpid and hypnotically dull, the poets are agonizingly self-absorbed and solipsistic. How can people barnacled with such bourgeois excesses speak to injustices or address historical events? Do they ever speak without pitching their voices into sentimental unctuousness? Can they offer third world nationalist movements anything in the way of counsel other than capitulation? These poems have their solipsistic origins at the poet’s window, looking to his/her favorite tree(s), or more appropriately the poem arises from the poet’s couch potato, psychoanalytic, etc. Any scrap of history becomes just another referent for their suburban angst. As Eliot Weinberger puts it, their own ‘personal crisis’ is the precondition for the consideration and understanding of anything or anybody else. The language is gassy and loose, as though the poems were written after a hearty meal. There are few dynamics, few allusions that might indicate a world beyond each poem’s enervated mass and tranquilizing cliches. The vast majority of these poets are in academia or publishing. They control the institutions that format future poets, control what little money there is and control what kind of poetry will be offered to the American public. But why should the public read these Solipsizers? They can get their sentiment from country and western music; their psycho-babble from Sally Jesse; their politics from CNN; their economics from the Home Shopping Network; and their ennui from having spent the day watching Sally Jesse, CNN, buying ceramic eagles, and listening to country and western music. The Solipsizers share these values as consumers and not as producers. Their poems are the exhaust of their consumption. They indulge themselves in poetry. That’s why they overwhelm a marketplace that does not exist. Jack Spicer’s commonplace, "No one listens to poetry," was not an invitation to mediocrity. What can be accomplished by endlessly conflating Oedipus and adipose? Who’s really got anything to add about fucking and sucking at the post-graduate level at this late date? Poetry like this does not often constitute art. It is a precious and hermetic speech; a therapeutic and isolated speech of professional associations for both the Solipsizers and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. Just hearing mention of the energies of a Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, or Robert Duncan makes the Solipsizers reach for their prescription bottles. This is the message of material Weltschmerz embedded in all this I-infested, navel-gouging, languid, cliched, credit card poetry, perfect bound, and stuffed into 800-page anthologies. Why, it’s enough to make Robinson Jeffers reach for his gun. I re-read the "I am," the "I wonder," the "I speed," the "I throw," the "I...remember," the "I dreamed," the "I want," the "I live," the "I was," the "I rise," the "I slept," the "I see," the "I knew," the "I took," and think: "My God, we poets are as ignorant and self-absorbed as the Unabomber or even, God forbid, Camille Paglia!!"

Current installments of "Deconstructing the Demiurge"

"Crimes of Passion"
"Work in Regress"
"Onionrings: Adding machines-Crisco"
"Collateral Damage, or The Death of Classics in America"
"How Dead Industrialists Dance, or Swing Time"
"Tale of the Tribe"
"Millennium Mathematics: The Centos"

Related:     "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" by Joe Brennan