5 Reasons to Oppose Not Reading Poetry (And Other Convoluted near Sentences)
When people say, "I've told you fifty times," / They mean to scold, and very often do; / When poets say, "I've written fifty rhymes," / They make you dread that they'll recite them too." -- Byron
Lately I’ve been dipping my toes back into the river of poetry.It only took Seamus Heaney dying to get me back into verse.No small fee.
realize that poetry is not everybody’s thing, considering the dismal
sales of poetry books and the somewhat hostile, somewhat fearful
reaction the sublime art seems to generate.(Example by
way of a quick story: I review books from time to time, usually penning
quick responses as opposed to long pieces of criticism, much to the
detriment of book culture.I got an email recently that invited the regular reviewers to choose a book from the soon-to-be-released pile.One of the books was described with a catch: “This is poetry.”The warning struck me as hilarious.Even book reviewers—so-called readers of literature—had to be told that here there be poems.EGADS! )
Why the resistance to poetry?For me, it has to do with grad school and the time I spent post-grad as a volunteer reader for a literary journal.The bombardment of poems I sifted through was enough to depress me beyond belief and send me running away from broken lines.Three years, give or take, since I picked a book of poems or tried to write one of my own.
My own reasons are my own reasons, but what are yours?Well, if you’re like many others, you might have a reason along the lines of:
1.So much poetry is crap.
A valid criticism, to be fucking sure, but let’s take a closer look at that.Most of what passes for entertainment is crap.The
Hollywood machine, the crumbling music industry, even TV in this
golden age of television pumps out a consistent stream of raw sewage.Why do expect poetry to be better?
Sure, a lot of poetry is crap.I agree 100%, but there are some gems among the dung heap.It’s your job to look for them.
Think of it this way: most of the music on the radio is total crap.I’m not just thinking of the current pop idols, those auto-tuned teenaged Barbie dolls.All of it.Classic rock radio is full of crap.(Fuck Bob Dylan.)But you have this feature on your car stereo called “scan” that allows you
to start at one end and follow through to the opposite in the hope that you might land on something worth hearing.And how many times do you start all over?How often do you wade through the muck before landing on a song worth your time?Or do you settle for the least offensive of the many aural offenses?
You ought to do the same with all forms of art, including poetry.There’s good out there.Go find it.Don’t let the dry academic word jumbles or platitude spouting hacks get you down.
2.It’s tough to read.
This is a good thing. Why should reading always be easy? Why should anything? Okay, sometimes we need downtime, so-called brainless fun. I'm not preaching against that, but the advocates of mindless entertainment prop up the idea of necessary distraction as if it were a virtue. Shutting off should be a small part of our experience, not a daily sacrament.
This is not to say that reading should be a chore. No, but we tend to equate all poetry with the kind that challenges and fails to compensate while there's a lot more out there that requires some work on the part of the reader but offers rewards along the way.
3.It’s so old!
Yes, but so is sex, and that sure hasn’t waned in popularity.
4.I don’t get it.
This is a complaint I’m very aware of and sympathetic to.Still... I don’t get a lot of poetry, or a lot of works of art.But so what?That doesn’t always diminish my enjoyment or, at the very least, engagement.Can anyone tell me exactly what happens at the end of Once Upon a Time in America?Or can someone explain to me what the song “Whiter Shade of Pale” means?I mean, really break down every line and give me a clear, precise meaning.Or what about the popular movie Inception?Did that not fuck you up a little?And what about that Pulp Fiction movie you all seem to love so much.What was in the briefcase?Do you know for sure?Does it matter?
No.It doesn’t matter.There are acceptable levels of mystery and confusion that art asks us to live with.And that’s often a good thing.The answers tend to be less interesting than the questions.
I mean, did you see the director’s cut of Donnie Darko?I didn’t because I heard enough about it to know that I didn’t want my love of the movie ruined.The original theatrical release was odd and mysterious and asked that the viewer bring something to the experience.The director’s cut, from what I’m told, laid all the answers out and killed the fun.
Another example:Roger Ebert, when reviewing 2001: A Space Odyssey, quoted E.E. Cummings: “I’d rather learn from one bird how not to sing than try to teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.”The idea being that the film was a mystery that he was happy to never solve.Though
he’d surely try, he was not about to engage in the foolhardy act of
teaching ten thousand stars to stop their dazzling movement.Let them do what they do and marvel at their doing.
When the sequel was released in 1984, Ebert returned to the quote and said that 2010: The Year We Make Contact tried to teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.Most
of us have forgotten about the second film, but no one who watches the
first will likely ever forget it (be it out of awe or frustration).
5.I have no time.
Bullshit.You have plenty of time.You merely choose to fill it with other activities, some quite worthwhile (family, food, fornication), some less (Facebook, How I Met Your Mother), some wasteful (listening to/thinking about Miley Cyrus). Prioritize, damn it.
I've got an idea: why not read Finnegans Wake? And blog about
it? Should only take me the rest of my life.
Finnegans Wake is considered a classic, though who has actually read
the fucker? Well, I'm going to try. And I'll blog about it. It
ought to be more fun than that woman's blog about cooking all of Julia Child's
recipes. Maybe I'll get a movie deal!
Why read the classics? Well… before we get into all of that, and we
may very well never get there, let me state for the record that I don’t like
the question as it is framed, for it presupposes that there are classics and
then there are some not-quite-classics, and, logically, some
not-at-all-classics, and, of course, some heaps of stinking crap.
But this is a question that has been posed at lil’ ol’ me more than a few
times. Why? Because I was an English major? Because I like
books? And when you like books, people assume one of two things: 1.
You like the classics therefore they have nothing to say to you out of (1)
intimidation or (2) annoyance; 2. You must like the books they like, so they
will ask you if you read (1) The Alchemist, (2) Harry Potter and the
(fill in the blank), (3) Some other book you probably haven’t read but
think is fine to read though you won't because it’s just not your bag.
During such conversations, the classics inevitably come up, though the two
people conversing share an undefined idea of what the word “classics”
means. I'm not so sure myself.
To me, there are the canonical works and then there are those that don’t
quite fit in but are still regarded as important works of literature. The
sub-canon, if you will. I tend to like the sub-canon. Bulgakov and
Calvino and Vonnegut and Cabrera Infante and Arenas and Cardenal and Vallejo
and so forth. To me, their works are classics; their books endure, amuse,
challenge, delight. But that’s not the right definition, is it?
If you go here you can read the Modern
Library’s list of the 100 greatest novels in English. I remember when
this list was published. At the time, I was a James Joyce hater. I
had read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and declared it
overrated (I prefer A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog by Dylan
Thomas). Ditto Dubliners (though it has some fine stories).
And then I tried to read Ulysses. And failed.
It seemed that Jimmy and I were never going to be close pals. And I
was fine with that. I preferred his protégé, Samuel Beckett. And
though Ulysses topped the list of 100 great novels, well, I didn’t
care. My pick, The Sound the Fury by William Faulkner, which I
still think is the greatest novel written in English, snagged the number 6 spot.
So I was happy enough, though really, what does it matter? Lists like
these are inherently silly.
I became a bit obsessed with Irish literature a few years later when I read
the poetry of Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, and Paul Muldoon. These are
Northern Irish writers, which makes a bit of a difference, but like their
forebears from Dear Old Erin’s Isle, these writers demonstrate such felicity
with language that I had no choice but to reconsider some of the Irish lit I
had neglected for too long. I had read Behan, Synge, O’Casey, and some of
the contemporaries like Patrick McCabe and Roddy Doyle. And, of course,
the late Seamus Heaney. But I had still not overcome my aversion to
The Modern Library’s panel of judges are not alone. Many people
consider Joyce to be the most important writer in English after
Shakespeare. And Ulysses is considered by many to be
indispensible. Maybe I ought to give it another try, I thought.
So I did. And I got farther this time, but still failed to reach that
classic “yes” that closes the book.
Oh well. You can’t read ‘em all.
Borges admitted that he didn't finish Ulysses. If Borges can do
as much, so can I.
Recently, my interest in Irish lit has been re-rekindled. It started
when I rented a box set of Beckett plays put on film. And then Seamus
Heaney died. (Bummer.) I started rereading some of his poems,
mostly during the long train ride to work when I have to steel myself against the
clatter of the city. Heaney calms me, you see. (But Muldoon excites
I started thinking about Joyce. Not Ulysses, which I am
determined to give another dance, but the unassailable Finnegans Wake.
No one I know has read it. I once heard that Harrison Hayford, the
Melville scholar, Northwestern Professor, and frequent visitor of the
Aspidistra Bookshop, belonged to a group that would meet weekly to discuss one
page of the tome. And each page, seemingly, is filled with enough riddles
so that these intellectuals were quite occupied. But this weekly meeting
makes sense. I'm sure it is best to read the thing with a support group
of dedicated bibliophiles.
But no one I know will do this with me. Cowards.
One of the reasons a support group is necessary, aside from the obvious, is
that membership implies responsibility and active participation. And when
undergoing such a project, joyful though it should be, one has to find
motivation where one can. Without a group to call my own (there's none in
Chicago that I can find), I'm forced to find another avenue that will lead to
something like regular readings of The Wake.
Thus the new blog. It shall focus on my days—probably stretching into
years—spent with Finnegans Wake. I will post all things Joycean
and other relevant pieces centering on so-called difficult books, literary
culture, and so forth. It shall be called Rejoyce and it shall be
(I wanted the address to be "blogofthedark" or "rejoyce"
but they were taken. And I tried to create a Tumblr for this
project. After joining, and being forced to like other pages, I am still
waiting for an email from Tumblr, which is required to activate my blog.
Two weeks now, Tumblr, and no email. What the fuck? Am I not cool
enough? Yeah, yeah, well fuckoff.)
As I stated above, many would call Finnegans Wake a classic though
few have read it. So why read this classic? Because it's
there. And if you're going to climb a mountain, why not try
Everest? Anyway, this will likely be another failure on my part, but fuck
it. What else can I do to amuse myself before old age and ruin?
I admit right off the bat that I am about to make a
useless, unfair comparison.Apples
to oranges, in a sense, but I don’t care.This is a blog, goddamn it, not a scholarly journal.
I read recently that Madonna asked a crowd of whoever the fuck
goes to a Madonna concert these days if anyone had seen Molly.She was referencing the latest club
drug, which is, apparently, ecstasy purified.Or something.But it’s all the rage with the electronic dance music kids, or so I’m
told.God knows I was never one of
those, having two left feet and a functioning ability to discern art from
trash.Anyway, I look ridiculous
when lit by glow stick.
I mentioned this to Cassandra, who is something of a Madonna
fan, yet not of the die-hard variety (she admires her for the way Madonna has helped bring gender politics into the wider public discussion).I summed up Madonna’s question about Molly as another attempt to seem
hip, as if Madge knows all about Molly and other fashionable drugs.And she may for all I know, but it
smacked as a far worse stab at relevance than the twerking of the former Hannah
Cassandra turned my accusation on me; if it were David Bowie
who’d said that to an audience, she argued, wouldn’t I think that was
cool?Ah… she got me there.I mean, I give Bowie a pass all too
often.But I stuck to my
guns.No.Bowie asking a crowd such a question
would be silly, but Bowie wouldn’t do that.Bowie does not need to make casual references to faddish
drugs.He’s done faddish drugs.He’s sunk deep into their abyss.Madonna can only imagine such a
state.So Bowie, clean for some
time now, would likely not ask such a stupid question.He’d write a song about addiction
instead.Or he’d keep quiet, as
evidenced by his decade long silence only recently broken.
But I got to thinking about these two very iconic artists.Why do I give Bowie credit for having
continually reinvented himself while I tend to poke fun at Madonna for her
shape shifting, which I often see as desperate and sad?My instinct is to write that Bowie is a
real artist with vision and a healthy sense of experimentation whereas Madonna
is simply an empty pop star.But
that's maybe too dismissive of the cultural impact of Madonna. Anyway, both have dabbled in fads and tried new things to varying degrees of
success.In a way, both were
mirrors that reflected the times more than the trend setters people hold them
up to be (or have been).But fuck
it: Bowie rules.Madonna
Bowie’s reinventions have always contained more philosophic
underpinnings.Madonna, at her
peak, was the sexy, taboo shattering material girl, a perfect symbol of the
decadent 1980s culture of greed.Good for her.Then she dyed
her hair and delved into Catholic imagery.And dyed it again and told women to respect themselves and
not go for second best.All good
messages.Then she sang a tribute
to fashion and striking a pose.Okay.Bowie sang about alienation as the late 60s turned into the 70s, the hippie ideals decaying in
his space oddities, and the rise of the homo superior.He sank in the existential quicksand of
his thought.And from that he rose
to space again and came back as the glam icon, Ziggy Stardust.And he killed his creation, as he would
again and again, moving into new territory and confusing casual fans while
recruiting a cadre of loyalists.Madge just kept seeming less important as the 80s became the 90s. Conversely, there
may be no other streak of brilliance like Bowie’s in the 70s (lasting well into the 80s).
And Bowie's song about fashion is so much better.
Let me admit that yes, Bowie made some missteps.Even in his decade of dominance, he
made Young Americans, which has never
been my favorite of his records, mostly as it tries very hard to be funk, and Pin Ups, a collection of not very great
covers.But he was willing to see
ideas to their end, even when they were half-baked.And they led to his best work, which, if you ask me, is his eleventh
Let’s consider that for a second.Low is his best record.Now, many might disagree (most will claim The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the
Spiders From Mars as his best… which is just wrong), but for a second let’s
just all agree that Low is his acme,
just for the sake of argument, okay?Thanks.That album is his
eleventh.ELEVENTH!Madonna’s eleventh record was Hard Candy.Not that I can truly claim to know this, but I am assuming
no one has ever called Hard Candy indispensible or, as one critic called Low, the best record of the decade.And guess what?Low
was the first of a trilogy of records that saw Bowie explore new ideas (with
the help of Brian Eno and Tony Visconti) and mostly
knock them out of the park. Next album: Heroes,
considered another of his best, it boasts the excellent title track, a song most musicians
wish they could write, which Bowie recorded on his twelfth goddamn record.Madonna’s twelfth?MDNA.Yawn…
What’s that?Bowie hasn’t made a good record since Scary Monsters?Aside
from that being very debatable, I might venture that he doesn’t have to.Even if he would have decided to stay
in retirement and not make The Next Day,
his legacy would have been more than secure.But he dropped another record, which is hardly brilliant but
does contain a few good songs, one of them very beautiful.Yes, he’s way past his prime, but his
prime lasted a long time.Madonna’s?
I’d say about five years.
And yes, Bowie plundered electronic music in the 90s and
early 21st century, just like Madonna, but where she made some
decent but forgettable pop songs, she also wrote “New York.Every other city makes me feel like a
dork.”Bowie?He was experimenting with soundscapes
and his brand of cryptic lyrics.Point: Bowie.
And yes, Bowie plundered black music.The before mentioned attempt to be
funky is not my favorite of his many personas, but it produced a cross over
hit, “Fame”, which he preformed on Soul
Train (the first white guy ever on the show, by the way). How did Madonna emulate a largely African-American art form?She rapped.
“I'm drinking a Soy latte / I get a double shoté / It goes
right through my body / And you know I'm satisfied. / I drive my Mini Cooper / And
I'm feeling super-dooper / Yo they tell me I'm a trooper / And you know I'm
satisfied / I do yoga and pilates / And the room is full of hotties / So I'm
checking out the bodies…”
All this before discussing her agent, chef, nannies (three
of them), money, cars, and other shit.She’s living the American dream, you see, until she realizes “that nothing
is what it seems.”Deep as a soup
Bowie has done some ridiculous things as well, but even his
lowest moments (a painful duet and video with Mick Jagger, the whole Glass Spiders thing) aren’t as horrid as “American Dream” the absolute
nadir of a career that peaked early, managed to stay afloat for longer than it
should have, and now refuses to die.
Whew… that felt good.Thanks for letting me kill time before Breaking Bad.
It has now been twenty years since I moved to the north side
of Chicago.I made the move to go
to school, where I did a poor job pretending to be a student.Not many were fooled.I lived for a brief two quarters of a
trimester— wrongly labeled as such— in a dormitory before officially joining a
group of bohemian idiots in a ramshackle apartment.I was underemployed at that time and, within a year,
unemployed.It’s not fun to be
unemployed in Chicago, but I still managed to smoke and drink and eat in diners.I was young and foolish.And now I am old and happier than I was
then, but I can’t help but feel that the city is just not the same.
I spent much of 1993 in awe of Chicago.I loved the used bookstores on Lincoln
Avenue, four within a short walk from each other, only one still standing.I loved Wax Trax Records, which
disappeared right as I arrived, and Lounge Ax, which closed a few years
later.And I loved the Red Lion
Pub, which closed not long ago and has reopened elsewhere to relative glory.I loved walking around Lincoln Park and
Lakeview and, when I got a bit bolder, Uptown.I would take the train to the Loop after hours and stare at
the glass and steel.I sat in
cafés drinking refill after refill, trying my best to understand Dostoyevsky.
I was so young!
Everything was exciting.I was a kid from the suburbs.I had grown up with the idea that the city (not the
southwest part where I spent a lot of my time, but the north side) was this
thing that existed very close to me yet was still foreign.I wanted very much to be a part of it,
to live a cultured life, to make my way in this urban setting that seemed so
And twenty years have passed.I’m older and, I like to think, wiser.Today, Chicago looks ugly and cruel.Sometimes obnoxious.I hate the kids in my neighborhood who
are merely doing what I once did: acting like college kids, reveling in their
freedom, drinking and laughing and sharing the books and music and movies
they think are important.I hate
them when they jaywalk.I
accelerate and honk my horn, hoping to scare them, demanding that they respect
the rules of the road.I hate
their naïveté.I hate that they
respond to the city with the joy I used to know.
I hate that the last mayor fucked the city over with a parking meter deal so absurd Beckett could not have imagined it.
I hate the crime.Twenty years ago the city was more dangerous, but the crime now feels so
intense.It must be because I'm
older and more aware of my mortality, but I react to each terrible news item with a
sadness that I never felt in my twenties.When I wrongly romanticized Chicago, I understood that crime was just
part of the package.Now I see it
is as depressing, hideous, desperate.I hate the reactions that the rest of the country has, the fucking
stories everyone outside the city reads, the ones that make them think the city
is a warzone.I hate the way
people characterize Chicago as a wasteland of political corruption and gangland
horror.I hate that they aren’t
I hate how much the city has changed.
I know two things:
1.I have changed as I’ve aged, so it is logical
that I won’t feel the same as I did twenty years ago;
2.No city ever stays frozen in time (maybe
Havana), so it’s logical that my favorite bars, bookstores, and record shops
will have closed.
I accept these truths but I don’t like them.
Not long ago, I walked down Clark Street near Fullerton, a
corner I used to visit regularly.I don’t get around there much for various reasons, but in the time since
I last went by I noticed that my old diner, The Golden Cup, was gone, replaced
by yet another Thai restaurant.Now, I love Thai food, but Chicago is hardly lacking in Pad Kee
Mao.But The Golden Cup, while
just another in a long series of Greek owned diners, cannot be replaced.What made it special?Nothing, really.It served predicable food (though the
Monte Cristo was the best I’ve ever had).But it was my diner, the one I went to with my pal Xtop, where we ate
damn near nightly, where we met for Old Man Breakfast after I moved out of his
studio apartment, where I would go after my shift at the Aspidistra, where I
hung so many memories of the last good days of my 20s.So yeah, it’s personal.
And speaking of the Aspidistra… well, I’ve said it many
times before but here goes another: nothing’s been the same since it
closed.It was the best bookshop
in Chicago.I felt that way before
I started working there and my love of the place only grew once I became an
employee. And when it closed, a big part of my life was gone.Yeah, I only worked there for a few
years, but it was still a sign that things were changing in ways I didn’t care
I tried to leave Chicago.Failed.
I came back and started working for lawyers.I made more money than I ever had.I met my wife.I finished school, this time acing all
of my classes.I began working as
a teacher.I started publishing a
few poems and stories in the far corners of the Internet.I began to take things a bit more
And it’s twenty years later.And I am happier than I have been in years.My life is good.No big complaints.But since it has been twenty years, a
good amount for reflection, I feel compelled to question whether or not I want
to stay in this beautiful, rotten town.
Of course I’m staying.The town has its hooks in me.I can imagine living elsewhere, but these dreams are always centered on
the superficial aspects of cities I have visited.It would only be a matter of time before the stores and
cafés and personal landmarks would close.And I’d be right back to feeling uncertain
and daydreaming of better things somewhere else.
But these landmarks are supposed to be transient.Unless you are keen on being a
vagabond, you have to put down roots even when everything else gets
There comes a time when you have to admit that it’s
you.Not the city.Not the world.Not the culture.Not the technology.Not the fashions.Not the attitudes.Not the kids.Not the politics.Not the times.You’ve
And there’s nothing wrong with that.God, imagine me still the twenty-two
year old twat, dressing like a bum, holes in my shoes, chain smoking, spouting
the dumb shit of my youth.Depressing.If I ran into
my twenty-two year old self, I’d likely want to slap the fucker.Self-centered, lazy prick.
So a lot has changed in twenty years since I’ve moved up
here.I’m not so dazzled by the
city lights.But I’m hoping that
in twenty years I’ll be happy still to be in this ugly, glorious, loud, fucked
up town.If I am as conflicted, so
be it.One should be conflicted
about Chicago.It’s earned the