Monday, June 05, 2006

Jug Jug to Dirty Ears

After reading Ulysses, T.S. Eliot remarked that Joyce had “single-handedly killed the 19th century.” I first heard that quote in college, although I’m not sure where. Back then, I used to contemplate how pleasant it would be to follow suit and figuratively kill the 20th century. I liked to imagine taking my pen up like lance and charging headlong, unthinking, until the canon itself was torn asunder with cutting metaphors and pointed similes. Perhaps, in some ways, my ever-looming ego still longs to slay that wicked century and steal off with its pot of gold.

But, as I’ve grown older, the notion seems more and more absurd. Who could possibly kill a century like that one. It was a century whose very modus operandi consisted of laying its own entrails bare. Everywhere, it seems to me, was the evidence. The history books for the time will be tinged with the crimson of actual spilt blood and shadowed by the ever-looming presence of utter annihilation. It was a century of inflation, of political murder, of global pandemics, of ever-shifting borders, of ceaseless strategic war, and of a new kind of horrid crime. But lest we forget, it was also a century of prosperity, of penicillin and polio vaccines, of democracy finally approaching its promise of a government by the people regardless of color or creed, of technologies so complex and intricate that we could dot the skies above us with countless satellites for our phones, our televisions, and our computers.

It is a century that, through necessity, led us to endlessly reinvent ourselves, endlessly killing off remnants and vestiges of ourselves in the service of one ideology or another.

It is a century of marvelous, failed ideas.

In literature, well, "western" literature at least, it was the century of the late Victorians, the Moderns, and the Post-Moderns. Countless schools ranging from the Imagists to the Surrealist to the Beats to the so-called New York School and the seemingly movement-less miasma of today, graced us with their insights into poetry and its composition.

Somewhere, amid this sprawling description of the past century, is the kernel of post-modernism. I’ll not try to define the term here, other than to say that in the field of literature, it is that which followed the modern. It is the mode that built upon those first fretful steps into verse libre while abandoning, in the face of the history surrounding it, the quest of the modern for absolutes.

Doubtless, this definition is simultaneously sufficient for my task and woefully inadequate. You, without doubt, could posit countless definitions of post-modernism that more succinctly capture its essence. But, alas, it is a term which is notoriously difficult to define. It is as slippery as a wet garter snake.

As for myself, I hate it.

One night while I was in college, I went to dinner with a poet who was a year ahead of me in college. Shortly, she’d be off to graduate school, where she’d do wonderful things. We went to a lovely Middle Eastern restaurant that was no more than a mere minute away from campus. Occasionally, it occurs to me that this may have been a date, albeit a bad one since the notion hadn’t exactly crossed my mind.

We were seated at a small table near the aisle and, of course, the conversation turned to literature. I think, at the time, and perhaps even now, she was better read than me and seemed to my mind brimming with theory that she would later deftly work into her poetry with a wry ease that still strikes me as admirable. For my part, I declared over couscous and hummus that I, quite simply, hated post-modernism. In retrospect, the comment was likely nothing more than an ignorant boast.

I still, I suppose, had no idea what post-modernism was, even though I confronted it every day in the architecture of the campus, in the work of my professors, and in the slow, measured lines that I myself was composing. Only later, much later, did I realize—with a shock akin to sticking your finger in a light socket (and yes I tried once when I was three)—that I could best be described as a post-modernist. Alas, it’s true of everything I write. My work is self-reflexive, punctuated by meager attempts at irony, and unabashedly derivative. My work is mired in fin de siecle melancholy, even though the end of the century has, well, already passed.

Yet, even though I’m more familiar with the term and better versed in the continental theories that were so lately in vogue, I’m certain that I hate post-modernism. Sure, I bandy the term about with affectations of learning—mostly with the purpose of teasing my wife. More, there are countless authors and poets—many of them tidy examples of a kind of a post-modern paradigm—who I adore. Take Ashbery, for example: amid his endlessly shifting moods and ever-so-slippery pronouns, Ashbery continuously inundates us with references. Daffy Dick, Elmer Fudd, and the Comte de Lautreamont end up equals in the wandering psyche of his speaker(s). How cool is that?

Still, I weary of identity as a political force. More, I tire of the notion that my work—or anyone’s work can be so loosely codified. I despise the notion, which post-modernism (and its theories) seems to posit, that we have a reached a point where our work can only be described as a reaction to what has already been written. I bristle at the idea that there is nothing new to write, that there is not a theme which has not been tackled by some writer, most likely Shakespeare, in a manner better than I could possibly imagine. Personally, I’d like to imagine a poetics of possibility, a poetics that does not simply repeat the same tired themes, or buckle at the impossibility of ever communicating clearly without error and without misinterpretation to anyone other than the ego of the poet. I’d like to imagine a poetics that recognizes the limitations of language, embraces them, and goes on about the business of poetry: reflecting the world through its own unique artifice.

Now, my wife is in the next room watching reruns of a sitcom. The puppies have come in from outside and are curled on the crimson comforter behind me nestling against one another. Earlier in the afternoon, Dixie interrupted my writing with a bark that mingled with a yelp. I heard both aggression and pain—although I’m not sure if either was there—and walked over to check on her well being. I found her bowing, as though for play, and yipping at a tiny cardinal whose feathers were still fuzzy. Dixie bounced around it, barking, and I chased her away, shielding the tiny bird with my body. I drove the hatchling, like cattle, with a stick toward one of the honeysuckle trees near the back fence of our yard and then coaxed it onto the perch of that stick without ever laying a hand on the small, vulnerable creature. I lifted the stick into the honeysuckle, and left it in a bundle of branches. The cardinal chick tilted its head, staring at me, uncertain whether to consider me a threat. It chirped and chirped, again, then leapt ever so slightly and flapped its tiny wings furiously to move a few inches to the next branch. Hopefully, the bird will survive—even though I have my doubts. Imagine the sound of the song that bird will sing if it survives. Do you think, even for a moment, that the creature would care where the song came from? It knows, without thinking, that the song comes from the breath from beneath the hollow bones of its heaving chest.


Blogger Jenny T said...

your post is a gift from summer five years past. i sit here in early february dreading springtime and googling jug jug to dirty ears, and i am mystified to find myself moved. (which is no doubt ridiculous because who googles jug jug to dirty ears without wanting to be stirred?) how long do cardinals live? again, google tells me, up to 15 years. perhaps your cardinal is still about, somewhere south, contemplating a trip north sometime soon. eliot never imagined such a finewoven mesh of information and junk as we have. and still i, too, am mired in postmodern irony nested in past phrases and fragments. but do you not like echos? and how the sound of your voice can strike the faces of shakespeare and joyce and eliot and collins and whoesever else might be turned our way a moment, and come back to you--hollow, full, and stinging?

are you still brooding, dear poet? i wonder and i wonder.

10:21 AM  

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