Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: writing (page 1 of 9)

On Having Too Many Books

The yelling echoed throughout my skull. I’ve bought too many books. I won’t read them, they’ll lie around collecting dust. I’ve wasted money and space, as well as abused my health.

No one was there, but the three books were bought from Half Price with that nagging guilt. They could join a pile lying around in my apartment unread. Volumes of poetry, academic essays, a few art history studies with “plates” (I know. It sounds fancy!), graphic novels, excerpts from an older critic’s diary. Not to mention the virtual pile on my hard drive. Quite a lot on there. Heck, Stumbleupon got me in the habit of bookmarking everything. How many essays and articles have I left unread, or read once with the stated intent of scouring again?

It is tempting to imagine a simpler mode of learning. Milton may very well have read all the books at the library in 17th century England. Plato frequently brings up parts of Homer and Herodotus. Did he only know a few books well, and make the most out of those? If so, could the nice people on reddit be justified in thinking they can find deep philosophical insight by thinking really hard while reading next to nothing?

It’s difficult to know what thinking well is. It certainly isn’t owning lots of books one hasn’t read. But it does entail a comprehensiveness that is like owning a lot of books. It’s a familiarity with a range of experiences, theories, opinions. It’s an ability to navigate the human things.

It struck me earlier how badly we’ve failed those who want knowledge to translate into a better experience for themselves and others. They think they espouse a certain maturity as they enforce rules, conforming and demanding conformity to certain standards. Our young intellectuals are the most pressing problem. For years now I’ve watched talented university students be the worst offenders in promulgating and abusing unwritten rules for the sake of keeping others out. I thought they were the exception, as a lot of things happen that are far from acceptable in small, cloistered circles, tucked away from scrutiny or reality. Now I’m thinking this is more than likely happening at every school across America, public or private, large or small, religious or secular. The issue is how we relate to rules generally. The response of our most talented is to worship them, because knowledge directly applied to one’s everyday life creates the markers of status that set one apart. The vicious cliques we bemoan in grade school and high school are ignorant, but not in the way we think. They’re nerds too, just nerds about other things. In their own way, they’re in love with school.

They want knowledge to be effective, to be practical. All of us want this, and it might be the worst of all temptations, precisely because knowledge has to be effective and practical at some point. Knowledge, or whatever part of it we have, turns into rules, into laws. In a similar vein, one might say justice is relative; the worst injustices come from those who have some part of the truth and a disproportionate, unrelenting need to believe in that part.

We don’t know everything. A corollary of this is that we’re always learning what it means to be moral. There are lots of books that promise knowledge, but I can’t really say I collect those. Mostly, I’m searching for the books that remind me of what I don’t know. The ones that demonstrate the pain of ignorance, as well as the honesty, the experience, of finding an answer that matters.

On Stuff

For H.M.W.

For me, Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up on Jimmy Fallon was funny, though marked by a peculiar darkness. At first, it seemed a fairly typical look at how ridiculous materialism is. Fallon had just handed out flat-screen tv’s to the audience. Seinfeld asserted this more a problem than a blessing, as most of the audience already possesses flat-screens. He then went on to say our whole lives are bringing objects home and turning them into garbage. How “garage,” where items once banished never find their way back, must be cognate with “garbage.” How nowadays, he’s happy to hear at funerals that someone wants to be buried with their stuff: “Take your crap with you.”

Like all of us, comedians tend to become more bitter as they get older. There are exceptions. Joan Rivers was so awesomely caustic that it didn’t matter how old she got. George Burns spoke of Gracie so quietly, so matter-of-factly, you didn’t quite realize how grateful he was for his time with her until well after he was done. The exceptions, I think, prove the power of the rule. Someone said you pretty much have to be psychotic to be a good comedian, and that might be correct. Strong, biting jokes are more than shameless. They spell things out so starkly that resentment, disgust, self-righteousness are only a degree away from being thought a natural response.

Disgust, of course, is anything but natural. Comedy at its best, comedy at its worst, reinforces the power of conventionality. There are some very notable exceptions to this. Still, Seinfeld’s above case doesn’t prove one. A lot of us say we want to simplify. We laugh and cry at hoarders on television, all while skirting the edge of becoming one ourselves. Obnoxiously, we impose “simplification” on everyone else. Everyone else is materialistic, and thus they’re holding us back from a cleaner, less-stressed, safer life.

This would be the most trivial of discussions if it weren’t for the fact I can recall relatives telling me to throw out books I was reading at the time. I think we can all relate stories where “cleaning” was really code for stop what you’re doing. Stop what you’re working towards. Throw what’s different away. Our materialism so thorough that it is manifest in our response to it. We don’t know why what we have is valuable, we don’t care to know what’s worth building or possessing. So we attack the idea of possession itself, as if life can be lived without objects. Or lived with very few objects that are disposable, yet almost sacred in their conception.

Either way, our response is about control. It probably is unhealthy to pretend it concerns anything else. A dark, biting tone makes Seinfeld’s cynicism look serious, but what exactly is he cynical about? That someone could do something, or make something of value, is what I feel has been buried in our day and age. It sounds strange to say this, as it looks like we celebrate achievement in so many ways. But if you asked me to write the history of our age, I’d show example after example of how ungrateful and uncharitable we are. We don’t mean to be this way; it’s a kind of ignorance at work. In order to appreciate something, we’d have to let it speak to us, at least pretend to take it seriously. Throwing away or buying objects mindlessly makes us secondary to stuff. Understanding how an object comes to be a possession, how other people possess or don’t possess – I can’t say that’s wisdom. I can say it’s wiser.

Teaching Writing When You Yourself Don’t Know How to Write

1. Supposedly, Thomas Mann said that writing is more difficult for writers than other people. I wouldn’t know, as I can’t find the essay where the quote resides. What I have depends on hearsay, and my response to such an idea, my attempt to test its truth, depends on my attempt to make something.

Writers talk a lot about craft, their depictions seeming almost whimsical when one considers how technical good writing is. Good poems feature a number of literary devices to bring about rhythmic, musical sounds while preserving a puzzle, a sense of mystery, that makes one want to revisit the speaker’s perspective. Nowadays, many people consider poetry artsy nonsense that isn’t demanding enough. Journalism and essays are thought to have stricter standards in terms of organization, facts, analysis, and even authorial credentials. But when a journalist says they retype their sentences to “get into a rhythm,” and a renowned poet talks about using Tarot cards for an exercise, I wonder where exactly our sense, or any sense, that writing is an intricate machine with various, necessary parts comes from.

2. I could teach her with make a claim, defend it. Rinse and repeat. If you say Lincoln has a different rhetorical basis for American democracy than Jefferson, for example, you cite the Gettysburg Address as significant. You propose that there, he comments on the Declaration of Independence, changing the status of “all men are created equal” from “self-evident truth” to a “proposition” in order to reflect the fact that American democracy may not survive. What is needed is the rededication of the American people, a real concern for equality, and thus nothing less than a “new birth of freedom.” A claim leads to further claims which can be proved. You go through the words you put on paper, identify what claims you want or have to make, order and defend them accordingly.

It goes without saying this is not writing. It is not even thinking. Learning to write in terms of “here’s a thesis, here’s what defends the thesis, order accordingly” held me back in terms of my thought for years. It put a premium on organization and a certain kind of argumentation that limited what I saw and said. It was helpful for assignments, but what I needed was to learn to write badly. Really badly.

There’s a lot on this blog that’s incomprehensible. I’d start putting words down, get obsessed with a detail or two, completely lose focus on what I intended to say. Or I’d start with a bunch of suspect observations and work myself into a tangle. Other times I’d lose my place or forget to summarize what I had covered adequately, or I’d have an inconsistent tone that makes it unclear what I really meant to argue. Finally, there’s the problem of writing too much, of losing focus just because I’m straining myself, trying too much too sloppily, hoping effort justifies.

That hard work can be counterproductive is more than a tough lesson. There are people – indeed, I’ve had “teachers” who’ve told me and others this – who urge quitting in the face of it. Why try, why fail? I’m not making sense to others, I’m not making sense to myself. If writing doesn’t communicate, what good is it?

3. One has to arrive gradually at an answer. You can read into my words above, you can see the shape of a response, but to accept and embrace any such supposition does not begin to comprehend the power of real writing. What makes Lincoln awesome is the power within his themes and questions. Rightly he centers on the problem of equality and liberty, seeing it fundamental to how we conceive democracy. You could say a number of thinkers say the same, that he didn’t really free the slaves, that he prosecuted a terrible war, that his literary legacy is miniscule, that he destroyed the Constitution. None of this gets at why his words matter, why he’s a human being of the first rank. It isn’t the eloquence, it isn’t the history, it isn’t even his position. It’s the attempt: his sense of justice courses through every word of the Address.

Oftentimes, “finding your voice” stands a sad trope in writerly circles. Learning to be sensitive to the voices of others, to give life to voices other than your own, becomes a lost cause. And even for those with more interesting, nuanced voices, “finding your voice” becomes the impetus for self-indulgence rather than thoughtful concern.

I propose that it is knowing how our words fail us that is the heart of any truth in finding one’s voice. It’s easy to look at amazing, successful examples of writing and be starstruck. We want to imitate or find our own path, enjoying fame or moving others. But our goals, whether noble or ignoble, whether just or unjust, can point away from the more refined understanding of justice in self-expression itself. Polonius may have been a fool, but “to thine own self be true” is what we’re reaching for.

4. Of course, continually failing at writing does not lend itself to being a productive, useful writer. At some point, a student has to craft prose that conveys knowledge and relevance.

That prose, I suspect, has to accept its incompleteness. We do tell a lot of stories nowadays that at first glance seem limited. To take the most serious example, the news comes fragmented. However, if one considers it as a whole, it is united by the theme of “our world” and characterized by cyclical repetition.

In a way, pre-Socratic madness was more honest. Why not compose a poem that will disclose the truth of Being? Are all things one and unchanging simply because they are? Or is everything composed of water? Or wind? Or fire? We have assumptions that color how we receive or convey anything. To engage and confront the craziest ideas can remind of what generates everything from cosmologies to laws to manners and mores.

Suffice to say my failures as a writer can be cured by pushing a delete button. In my teaching right now, I’m trying to get students to be honest about how they think or don’t think about their assignments. It isn’t enough for them to write a solid argument or express an insight. What matters is how they got there, where the resistance made itself felt.

On learning of The Situation’s arrest in a tanning salon (or: Archaïscher Torso Apollos II)

for Ricky McAlister; recommended reading

Not the beauty
of a sonnet’s lines,
forming quietly.

Nor the excitement
of a campaign speech,
exploding wildly.

It is best seen
when Warhol’s fifteen
didn’t apply to Edie.

The warmth of his smile
with mention of her.

After Hannah Stephenson’s “Craftsman”

Not just a porch, not just an old porch,
but a beautiful old porch

Even the rotting-away pieces of it

Look at all there is which has not yet rotted

Every caretaker is a craftsman
contributing to the beautiful old something

Hannah Stephenson, “Craftsman”

Listen to the bees –
their delirious buzz
destroying a daytime’s calm.

I envy their consistency.
The fungus spreads,
the log rots –

the pattern and texture
like old parchment
with wondrous calligraphy.

The surgical glow
of office lighting taunts.
It tells me I’m trapped.

Lottery tickets
lack hesitation.
Coffee goes best
with daydreams.

Maybe, in another life,
reward and escape are one.

But here,
the sun’s quiet warmth
sometimes irritates.

Only the golden
gentleness of dandelions
sways in the wind,
like a wish.

The things that must be said…

…can’t be said. Or they are already said, but we don’t notice. We never notice. The only way to inform someone is to treat them like an idiot. They don’t think. They never think. Only you think. When someone curses out of frustration, let them know they took God’s name in vain. Ignore the blood oozing from the place their arm was. Make sure they hear what you know, what they might know if you say it over and over again.

Don’t forget, you could be wrong. It could be that no one knows anything because the things that must be said are difficult. You don’t just have to know them. You have to convey them. To persuade someone means to know them and make an appeal to them in particular. You don’t really have time for this, but you could make time. If only you had friends. For some reason, you never have friends.

There are no things that have to be said. No necessity asserts itself that you have to say anything. All you have to do is lead. Get out there, show what you’ve got. Lead by example. You’re fixing a car and someone asks you how to do what you do. You mumble “whatever you do will be good.” They go and pump diesel into an engine that takes regular unleaded.

Maybe the things that must be said can’t always be said by you.

Maybe you have to listen to them first.

Fourth Shot

"Fourth Shot," by Joel Peck. Intaglio, 2007. Photo credit: Tom Farris

“Fourth Shot,” by Joel Peck. Intaglio, 2007. Photo credit: Tom Farris

How a speck disgusts.
A watery, grid-like beauty,
housing playful creatures.
They race, and maybe the blur
they make blurs us,
or maybe we didn’t want to look
from the start.

Sneering at Tourists at the Vatican

is all we are.

Slathered in scent,
covered with cosmetic,
concealed through outfits,
we’re an old bird
with pretty plumage.

At “The School of Athens,”
much gawking and cackling.
Up and down and a train
of figures unknown.
Not one of the many sees
the triangular composition
holding the painting together.

On Aliens


The chrome of spaceship Xpthis 3 gleamed as it fired death rays into every major American city. Screams came from every direction and were played on the ship’s loudspeaker. I scrubbed the floor, fearing for my life – I was an early capture. Up to that point, I didn’t think the aliens had a hierarchy. They presented themselves as a collective will. But then I saw things that marked jealousy, fear, resentment. Aliens with what seemed more menial tasks laughed harder at our agony. For Kothos Prime, though, this was another day’s work. I began to think those numbers he worked with were not calculations about jumping to lightspeed, but rather his hedge fund.

Before I was brutally probed by our alien conquerors, I worked for an ice cream shop. I mainly got the job because my girlfriend told me she’d kick me out of our place if I didn’t get off my ass and work. She wasn’t worried about my not paying bills, though that happened from time to time. A rich uncle of mine died and left me a bunch of money. I was given that money for college, but that condition was only told to me in confidence.

As a wise man once said, “I do what I want.”

[sounds of laser fire, running, hatch being opened. Recording ends for a short time.]

Where was I? Oh yeah, school. Part of me thinks that my uncle wouldn’t have cared that I blew my brains out with weed freshman year. First off, why the fuck is high school everything? The last thing I wanted to see was every bullshit clique replicate itself like mold, and that’s exactly what I saw right away. The preppy ones who were dressed just a little sharper, kept up a little better in class. You knew they were there to get the paper and go right back to Daddy’s firm. Then there were the ones trying to be smart – god they were annoying. They were naive enough to think they’d actually get real opportunities, knowledgeable enough to plunge into enough nonsense to deny the reality. There were jocks, alcoholics, stoners, drama queens and a bunch of others, but I stopped paying attention quickly. My uncle gave me money to make something of myself. When I started seeing the groups most likely to rule the world, I just wanted to vomit.

I’ll tell you a secret. Smoking was the best. fucking. thing. ever. OK, that’s not a secret, but it’s like this. OK. You listening? Good. I know, I’m not talking to you all sharp and stuff anymore, but that’s because I’ve found some kickass alien weed in this lab and I am a lot more chill. I do not feel the pressure of telling you everything.

I got into smoking because I liked blowing the smoke. It sounds so stupid, but there you are, and you can just cloud your vision for just a second – everyone can – and you can see the details and the changes in the smoke itself. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the high is awesome. But what’s really addictive is being yourself, without pressure from all around. You know what I mean? I gotta change locations again, I hear a guard coming.

[recording resumes a short time later]

Okay. I forget where I left off. My point was that I never felt I had real opportunities, just money and drugs. My girlfriend works a lot harder than me, but she’ll never admit that she’s not where she imagined she’d be. Straight A’s and an internship and law school: she’s night manager at Walmart. Our money goes toward her debt.

I’ve worked a number of jobs. I think the retail ones best sum up everything I hate. I’m scared to lose hours, scared to not sell enough, scared that the money I make will barely cover expenses. There’s never any time to think positive things when not busy. I quit my last job at Abercrombie after a good manager who made sure we were treated well and things ran efficiently was reassigned. His labor was too valuable to the company; the store was an afterthought. After him, things went downhill fast. I am really liking the ice cream job, though. I get to bring unsold food home.

I encountered the aliens when walking back from work. My girlfriend had texted me some stuff about how much I suck. I’ve gotten used to the anger, but it distracted me. I didn’t realize I was walking into an area that was more fog than sidewalk.

I didn’t realize it wasn’t foggy out.

The aliens definitely were interested in my physical being and my cell phone. It’s really strange – they didn’t ask any questions about governance or history, nothing about society or culture. They did ask questions about diet and exercise, endurance, how I felt in certain climates. They were interested in emotional responses for sure. It wasn’t hard to see that their psychology is very linear: if an object is put in front of me, that must mean a specific thought or feeling. Honestly, after working retail, it’s hard to see a difference in my treatment.

Hup, time to move.

[recording resumes a long while later]

Something’s up. I’m watching the shuttles with what seem to be raiding parties come back to the mothership, and the aliens are always fighting. There was an argument over what was a stolen coffeemaker.

It’s been weeks. I haven’t thought about my girlfriend or my family at all. My time is spent trying to figure out what I’m seeing. What possesses people to take a bunch of ships and soldiers and go some random direction, raiding what they first see? I mean, who does that?

Okay, fine. Laugh. Yeah, we did a lot of that. This is a bit weirder: there’s no pretense of exploration. I don’t even know that they know what raiding is, either. The ships come back with objects as varied as feathered boas and metal from the Sky Needle. It’s like they’re just doing stuff to look like explorers or an army. I haven’t seen any serious attempt at occupation; their transport ships have held steady.

I’m gonna try to steal away on this shuttle. I haven’t thought about the girlfriend or the family because I’ve been focusing on trying to get to them.

[recording, weeks later]

I guarded this device like my life depended on it. I didn’t want it lost or stolen, I didn’t want anyone thinking I was an alien spy. I haven’t recorded because I got back to my girlfriend and family, and they’re gone now. They had a series of devastating mutinies. It turns out the officers were competing amongst themselves in a sport of sorts, a “who can do the most damage and capture the most stuff” competition. Come to think of it, the marks that they were so ridiculously feudal were always there, most present in the things that initially struck me as democratic. What undid them, it seems, was the arbitrary scoring the commanders engaged in. Nothing was ever good enough. If one commander destroyed a whole city by using a ray to create an environmental effect like an EMP, then another stole every fence from a suburb using only genetically modified ninja cats. The men, apparently, saw this initially as unique and worth having pride in. Eventually, they started running out of things to do – yes, even by these pitifully low standards – and the commanders turned on each other, and the men turned on the commanders.

I don’t know how exactly this thing works. It records, but there’s a little sign that might mean I’m on air. We have a chocolate mocha almond flavor at the shop today. It’s a slow day and I could really use the tips. Thanks in advance if you show, especially if you have my coffeemaker.

Too Old for Romance

Like seeing sunlight
strike a Greek temple
at a distance, at an angle.
Light and shadow
on and between blank pillars,
the shriek of an eagle

You sparkled in that
evening dress,
held yourself high.
I kept falling
from one stanza
to the next.
Bathing Venus’ modesty,
the jazz pianist’s next phrase,
the lion and the lamb.

Then weeks, months.
I never saw you.
The buzz of a fly on the wall
always broke what was good.
Others came and went,
and I only saw afterward.
When in the supermarket
you answered hello,
when you nearly blushed,
the day and stars were
too grand.
The old dreams are gone,
but I wonder if they’re yours
as well as mine.

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