Wednesday, June 13, 2012

If your poem's not working, put an ant in it

I was emailing with Adam Golaski yesterday about poetry whatnots and he told me that he used to joke with some writing buddies that if your poem wasn't working, just put an ant in it. I have a dead squirrel poem (as Rauan Klassnik well knows), but I think the only ant poem in my greater oeuvre is "The Hunt," which appears in That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness. (The last line is "The ants had become one body, / moving forward in a trance-like state." And I think I'm to blame for it, not Kathy.) Sawako Nakayasu has written several books about ants. I tweeted "Put an ant in it" is the new "Show don't tell", and Tao Lin sent me an image of an old poem of his about ants. This must be extreme juvenilia; look at the couplets!



Have I mentioned that I love exclamation points in poems?

This seems like a good occasion to talk about why I don't think the poems in you are a little bit happier than i am (Action Books, 2006) are especially sincere, by which I mean they don't even "seem" or "feel" sincere. A D Jameson has said on several occasions that the New Sincerity isn't about true sincerity but devices that create the appearance of sincerity. But I'd like to avoid going down the garden path of trying to distinguish between true sincerity and fake sincerity; that way lies madness.

Instead, let's focus on the effects we can all agree on: a cultivated artlessness, flatness of tone, extremely simple word choice and syntax, "childishness" in terms of both voice and attitude or mentality. I think what's amazing about the book is how that flat, childish voice is both totally hilarious and, somehow, simultaneously affecting. Reading a Tao Lin poem, you ride on a high created by the dissonance between the elevated language expected from poetry and the ludicrous banality of what's actually on the page; but there's always a risk of being suddenly sucked down by a moment of real devastation.

Let me illustrate with an example poem from his first book, because it's very different in style from that older poem above, which you could almost mistake for a Karl Parker poem. Here's one of the shorter ones from the book:

it'll get different
at work i wonder
if i should take anti-depressant medicine 
finally, i decide, no, i shouldn't 
later i am feeling depressed
do it, i say, take anti-depressant medicine 
still later i feel better
anti-depressant medicine, i say, ha, ha
ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha 
an hour later i catch myself thinking extremely hard
about a bright green apple being where my heart should

I think this veers very close to the stated definition of flarf: "deliberate shapelessness of content, form, spelling, and thought in general, with liberal borrowing from internet chat-room drivel and spam scripts, often with the intention of achieving a studied blend of the offensive, the sentimental, and the infantile." Or, as Gary Sullivan put it, "A kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. 'Not okay.'" Note how close this is to Ana Bozicevic's definition of the New Childishness as "a cultivated artful artlessness." The phrase "anti-depressant medicine" is funny because it is wrong, redundant, sounds misinformed in a Bushism way (a la "the interwebs"), an effect that's enhanced by its being repeated three times. There's also the implied understanding of antidepressants as something you take on demand, like a painkiller for a headache ("do it, i say, take anti-depressant medicine").

The end of the poem* is a caricature of a sentimental ending; what's more sentimental than equating your feelings to your actual physical heart? It is still surprising and strange -- the sudden image in this poem that has consisted entirely of straightforward reportage of thoughts and feelings. It's also weird ambiguous: would having a "bright green apple" for a heart be good or bad? It's a bit surreal, and Tao Lin poems aren't usually surreal. Is it moving in any way? Eh, not really. I think a poem like this works largely on the basis of self-mockery; if the real Tao Lin ever had these feelings, he's mocking them by writing them down, and if he didn't, he's mocking the mentality by proxy. It's an anti-poem. It could be called, "Poem About Depression." Oh ha ha ha.

Perhaps a better example of a poem that is, to me, both really funny and paradoxically affecting is "4:30 a.m." I was going to say "I don't want to type this poem out in full" but then I remembered that copy and paste exists, so here it is:

4:30 a.m. 
i am biting my fingernails in bed
i am fucked existentially
i am not an okay person
i am nervous in my bed alone in my room
i am fucked existentially
i am just a normal person
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
please keep reading
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
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i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
i am fucked existentially
thank you for reading my poem




I think I actually copied that the right number of times but don't hold me to it. The poem occupies one full page spread in the book (i.e., you don't have to turn the page to finish the poem).

This is funny for all kinds of reasons. There's the "wrongness" discussed above; what does it even mean to be "fucked existentially"? It sounds like something a kid would say so you can't take it seriously. Also I love the visual trick of the repeating line; your eyes know it's the same line over and over so you don't actually have to read it each time; it becomes more like visual art than a text. And the hilarious deflation of the final, self-referential "thank you." It's all so over the top, you see; that's why I don't think it makes sense to say that this poem seems sincere. To me it seems ironic, meta-poetical, and conceptual first and foremost.

The line that achieves that peculiar paradox, though, is "please keep reading" -- he's acknowledging that it's obvious at first glance this poem is mostly ~50 iterations of the same line, but he wants you to really read it anyway, as though by taking in each line individually you could come to understand his suffering. It's so silly, but it's sort of the plea of the author in general, isn't it? I know this has all been said before; I know everyone suffers; I know the particular form my suffering takes is laughable; but please keep reading.


*At least I think it's the end; there's a stray, seemingly unrelated chunk of text on the next page that may be an untitled poem or may be the last stanza of "it'll get different."


20 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Thanks, Elisa! The more we talk, the more I think we're actually in agreement. See my post tomorrow at HG for more on this, though it won't be a finely tuned response to this particular post. (I'll email you.)

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    1. Wherever he is. I hope he's enjoying it.

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    2. He's probably enjoying a delightful afternoon stroll.

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    3. Thinking to himself, "Yes, yes, I am sincerely enjoying this stroll."

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  4. Yes. Much in the same way that I am sincerely typing into this little box whilst enjoying some cold coffee in this, the bracing pre-summer of my early middle age.

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  5. In a little while, I'm going to try this same thing from a promontory.

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  6. i liked this, but i think u are wrong in your analysis of "it'll get different"

    i don't feel it is a studied blend of [lowbrow language use]

    i feel tao is using his own voice in the poem. he is a little mocking of his own voice / the unweighty nature of his thoughts. i don't think this makes the voice or poem ironic, rather he sincerely feels humor towards his sincerely unweighty voice and thoughts. as someone who is naturally/unironically prone to use/think in similar language i felt the poem was a simple and moving rendering of a familiar emotion

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    1. Hi, Rin,

      Where did this idea come from that irony is necessarily mean-spirited or "fake" or something? When you say "he sincerely feels humor towards his sincerely unweighty voice and thoughts," it sounds like you think using the term "irony" about these poems makes Tao seem like a bad person or a liar or something. There is no contradiction involved in saying something ironic and having genuine feelings at the same time.

      I find this type of analysis of his poems condescending. He is perfectly capable of writing (and thinking) in "adultish" sentences; see the older poem above. He is choosing not to for a certain effect. His "own voice" is a voice of his creation.

      I appreciate the dissenting voice, but I'm not convinced. I've been seeing these types of arguments around the Internet for 6+ years and I just don't find them to be a very sophisticated read on what's going on in his poems.

      eg

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    2. hello elisa, how are you...

      i don't think irony is necessarily mean-spirited or fake. you said you don't think the poems in yaalbhtia are especially sincere, and i think they do happen to be sincere, not that it would be bad if they were insincere or ironic.

      i agree tao is capable of using adultish sentences, of course. but why do u think that if he is able to do that, his use of another voice is a studied, orchestrated use of language like flarf poetry is? i think there is an implication there that adultish sentences are a "progression" (and hence bettering) from childish sentences. i do not feel that is true, and i don't think tao does either, so by using a childish voice he is not being ironic, he is simply using a different voice that comes more naturally to him. (at least it is one that comes more naturally to me, and i assume it does to him).(and just because he is conscious of the effect such a voice has and shows self-consciousness in the work, doesn't, in my opinion, make the voice less sincere or anything. he would be conscious of the effect that an adultish or any other voice would have too. the self-consciousness / slight self-mocking seems more to do with a discomfort with language, the narrator's actions or existing itself than to do with the voice being "ironic, meta-poetical, and conceptual first and foremost").

      not 100% sure what i am talking about, i guess. i think i'm onto something, maybe. i think it's an interesting discussion anyway

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    3. I like the poems in yaalbhtia better than the juvenilia example above, so I don't think "adultish" sentences are necessarily better than "childish" sentences. It all depends on how you use them. But I'm not *especially* interested in texts that use only childish sentences if there is no irony or awareness or humor going on in their usage. In general I am in favor of complexity. It's cool if other people are not, but I'd rather have a complex text than a simple text (even if that complexity is at the level of concept and meaning rather than syntax or vocab) almost any day.

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  7. actually i'd like to write my own analysis of the poem, an elaboration on why i think it successfully renders a certain emotion

    the first four stanzas, i feel, express a tiredness with his depression and the constant power it has over him, the annoying and sad unvarying-ness of this. the gentle mocking of his voice/thoughts reveals a slightly bitter desperation for the flatness and lameness of it all to be something different, something better/more controllable.

    the last stanza (which i earnestly was very moved by) -- his thinking "extremely hard" is a continuation of his desperateness, but rather than that being translated through a bitter mockingness he is imagining his core is something different, lighter, more constant and more happy. there is a sadness in his continued lack of control and action (he catches himself thinking, did not even do so on purpose, and he is only imagining something, that is as far as anything is going). i agree there is an ambiguousness of the green apple. i think in the stillness of it, the non-moist surface of it and the non-humanness of it. i think those things just make the narrator's wish to change just a little sadder / seem a bit more of reach.

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  8. Haha when I first saw it I thought this post was going to be about Tao Lin's poetry.

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  9. I saw the "Flarf" tag on your blog, and since Flarf is a movement that got me really interested in what poetry could mean after the Beats, I had to explore. I'm not commenting on Flarf of course, but just felt a need to explain a comment that's >year late.

    Anyway, it's interesting what goes on in Tao's work. I think the his label of 'anti-depressant medicine' could pinpoint my whole take on him. When you're first prescribed a medication, it's a totally alien idea to you that you now have a supposed 'disease' like depression. You're uncomfortable with it, but try to take it seriously, _and_ self-defensively try to laugh it off as bogus science. So to me, calling it 'anti-depressant medicine' isn't childish, but highlights a complex dynamic of sincerity-struggling-to-be-irony, and ironies-questioning-themselves-as-being-actually-sincere.

    I think Tao's frequent feeling of alienation, which is something he's always been forward about, informs and reifies this process throughout his writing, which gives it its great appeal (Tao has said some things about the consolation of art that some people who miss the point of his writing would be surprised by). I don't think there are such things as true sincerity _or_ fake sincerity- there's always some irony we feel in saying/putting-some-vocal-inflection-on just about anything, no? And if you want your work to be perceived in any positive light, the writing itself is going to acknowledge it, and it turns out to be comforting.

    Anyway, I don't even know if you'll read this comment, but just wanted to add to the archive for any other people who come across it. Cheers

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    1. Yep, I read all my comments: they come straight to my inbox.

      You might also be interested in my more recent post about Tao Lin's new novel, Taipei: http://thefrenchexit.blogspot.com/2013/08/some-notes-on-tao-lins-taipei.html

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