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Night Thoughts (I)

Dickinson’s dashes and erratic capitalizations seem unusual or eccentric only to those who are unfamiliar with 19th century letter-writing. Byron’s letters, for example, are punctuated entirely in Dickinsonese, and similarly elliptical. It is no surprise to me that there is an entire book of Dickinson’s “envelope” poems. She was always writing letters to no one. Or rather: to us.

 

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Huck Finn is so widely taught because of its social and historical “importance” and its bittersweet portraiture: Its humor, in American classrooms, is now a secondary element. The book isn’t taught to teach kids how to laugh while reading something, as Twain the humorist would have wanted; I have seen it studied with the utmost seriousness, and the book’s use of the n-word is the subject of earnest debate. It disheartens me how unfunny the comic writing of the distant past becomes. When have I laughed, truly laughed, at anything in Aristophanes or Moliere or Shakespeare? I simply don’t laugh at these once-uproarious writers the way I’ve laughed at Chris Rock or Stephen Colbert or Key & Peele or Catch-22. Why is this? Poetry ages worse than prose because poetry is closer to music. Comedy ages worse than tragedy because comedy, too, is closer to music: Everything comes down to timing. Humor depends so heavily on time that it collapses when time slips away.

 

 

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Are rap lyrics poetry or not-poetry? I have read scholarly guesses at how Greek tragedy sounded in performance, in articles dating to the 1950’s, that could have been describing rap before the fact; dithyrambic poetry, too, its forerunner, seems to have been accompanied by a backbeat. Rap has already gone from the single rapper to multiple voices—cf. your local radio stations, where Nicki Minaj, Drake, and L’il Wayne all crowd the same track, obliquely referring to each other’s riffs. It’s one small step from that to verse drama.—Historically, all sorts of lyrics have “qualified as poetry,” from Aeschylus to Shakespeare’s songs to Robert Burns’ work; scholars are going to try their hardest to do this for Bob Dylan’s lyrics, too. The only criterion for the transition has been that the lyrics read well on the page, divorced from performance—the song’s musicality must at least partially reside in the song’s language. Hey nonny nonny, chicka chicka Slim Shady.—In a “post-literate” age, this may no longer hold true. But don’t count on it.

 

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John Ashbery is exclusively a stylist. Throughout his metamorphic career, from Some Trees to Quick Question, he has pursued stylistic effects at the expense of emotional intensity and meaning. It’s not putting the cart before the horse so much as tipping over the cart, shooting the horse, and declaring the goods delivered.

 

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Most aspiring poets think that getting published in The New Yorker and Poetry is how to “rise,” and most established poets would agree; but it is worth keeping in mind that the current Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, has been published in neither. (For comparison purposes, I myself, whilst wearing my poet-hat, have published five poems in the former venue and twice that in the latter—and nobody knows who the hell I am.) I would propose that the journal or magazine system—the perpetual striving to “place” a poem—is actually detrimental to a poet’s development. Journals exert strict, almost harsh limitations on creativity: requirements of length, most obviously, which the shift to online journals, with theoretically unlimited space, doesn’t seem to have done much to counteract; but above all, the need to cater to editorial taste–which, while unpredictable in specific instances, can be generally guessed at, with editors at various publications preferring this theme or form to that theme or form. (Editors always claim they are open to anything, but don’t believe them. There is, in my experience, only one David Lynn out there, and KR is lucky to have him.)—Over a decade of doing this has brought me full circle. I used to know if my work was bad when no one would publish it; I treated the rejection/acceptance system as a filter for vetting my own work. But the filtration-metaphor was all wrong. The better metaphor–the one that better explains the wild success of poets who leave you cold & the disheartening obscurity of poets who strike you as geniuses–is the radio metaphor. A poem is merely a transmission on a specific frequency. You need someone on the receiving end, tuned to your frequency. By writing an elegy for a lost loved one, or a poem about suffering racism, or a straightforward free-verse Poignant Anecdote, you are transmitting on a frequency that a lot of readers are already tuned into. But spondaic septameter sonnets with shoutouts to Shinto and Sade? No matter how beautifully pulled off, such a broadcast is narrowcast indeed, and plays after midnight, to strangers lonely and still awake. To your secret clan.

 

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The transition from postal mail to email and texting has been roughly analogous to the transition from horse-drawn carriages full of mail to the telegraph. The original “connected world” was connected physically, by hundreds of miles of insulated telegraph cable, laid down by the Western world’s ships on the bottom of the ocean, going from the imperial capital to farflung provinces and colonies. 19th century railroads, too, many of them still operational in post-colonial countries such as India, likewise connected the trade and command centers of empire; one can’t help but think of medieval and modern European armies tramping down intact ancient Roman roads…which were created for the same reason, to keep merchandise and soldiers moving quickly. Within my lifetime, the American military invented the Internet—again, with the aim of keeping a command structure intact. The Goths and other barbarian tribes were happy to test out the adage that all roads lead to Rome; each new scene in Gandhi’s political theater was conveyed by telegraph around the world; and with the Internet came WikiLeaks. Elite power, industriously and ingeniously empowering itself, empowers the rest of us, quite by accident.