No One Loves a Living Poet—But Everyone Loves a Dead One
The Blackbird Variations, Chapter VIII
So came he into February, reading through books and reaching through pages whilst sitting in the torn orang booths of George’s Restaurant, outside which weathers swapped snows with sleets and slushes. And out past weathers were the jobs he need be seeking, but he insisted on the work of his pen, scribbling:
A Mimetical Fancy
A pinioned Genius perched upon my windowsill, to find me sleepless beside my beloved, snoring. Worrying was I over all the things I’ve yet to know and do, and with a threatening flourish of his abysmal smock, he shocked me from my angst by laying over me these soothy truths:
’Tis reflexive one form a (snap) judgment of a man, should one hear he is a poet. ’Tis an index of unfortunate traits associated with those whose work is manifested in verse: a certain sensitivity, a certain arrogance, and a certain posturing which defies the forthright rule of society and these rules’ basis in communication.
A poet, looking long at words and their attendant phrases, will desire to move beyond their mere utility—how words are commonly used to denote and connote processes, needs, and states by way of requests, demands, promises, descriptions, questions, and so on. And after some time, the poet will come to see that language is an edifice humans have lain over the world in order to effect their collective will upon it.
Recognizing this is the first step toward mastering this medium. And this transition, from language’s common use, into its mastery, is effected by a phase of crisis, where the poet will be overcome with language’s arbitrariness, on the one hand, and a sense of life’s profound indifference toward meaning, on the other.
In order for a poet to pass through this gap of arbitrariness and indifference, he requires a clear and direct access to both life as it is lived and language as it is used, in order to establish in both necessary forms, suitable to his age.
And perhaps by this one will see the root of his sensitivity, and the cause of his arrogance, and the purpose of his posturing, his affectation, his doing things with language (which is all gesture in the end and to start with) that not his time had fixed for itself to go about fixing its needs in the present. The poet postures—as all of you posture, all of the time—but his postures seem “put on” so far as you’ve forgot what you have put on, for it has been put on you to “put things” in such and such a way.
Early on his journey, the poet finds love not in his beloved, but in his meditations on her—he is inflamed by expression, and after some seasons, or successions of lovers, he might find that all there is to say about love has already found its classic and inelastic form in his inherited language—fire and desire, for instance, have lost all their heat by being linked and linked and linked—and so he must either go up or go down, from his experience of love—from the field of dewy lovemaking he will retreat to the monastery or to the brothel—for whatever happened in that field, whatever transfigurative event that broke down the barriers of his individuality and turned him into a conduit for the boundless energies of life—he will find that language as it is used does not contain that transfigurative power—that transfiguration does not have to do with understanding and with making sense, which language has been created to effect. And what life effects on lovers is something other than what “makes sense.” At its lowest human limit, love is a “knowing”—a shrifting of the object of love into a love of objectness, of formness, of embodiment—love breaks through not only your habitual objectification of one another, by means of your lower desires, but as well your instinctual personification of one another, by means of your subtler capacities—love breaks through both those, without denying them whatsoever, for how else do objects propagate? How else do people make more people? But through a using of one another for their own pleasure—by a delight in the essential pleasures of embodiment and personhood that define you in relation to one another, and in relation to your world.
And language, beyond being a pleasure to speak and to hear, it certainly can speak about love, but can it ever be love? It can use love to effect states of reverence towards the transcendent or states of lewd levity toward the silliness of your status as bodily beings. And yet the poet who wishes language to be the field, the flower, the unclothing, the skin that meets skin, the faces that lose their edges by giving them over to one another—for language to do anything other than to express love it must become love, and the moment it is made to be love, it is seen, by the reader, not as love but as if it were love. LANGUAGE STILL MERELY REFERS! And thus proves itself as a derivative, diminutive tool of creativity, shadowing the principal demiurgical urgency of pure creation.
Language ever becomes a way of speaking about a thing—and how does a man who feels language to be capable of beingthat which he uses it to describe—how does he convince his readers to cast off the referentiality that they bring to it (by no fault of their own) and to allow the verses, words, and phrases tobelove?
The energy to create such a verse—such a versification—to show others a showing that is itself what is being shown—that requires either possession or an utter dispossession—and both of those will break a man, in his own embodiment.
The energy that must be expended into language to break it from its usefulness, like love, cannot deny its use, but subsume that use into a higher purpose—and that requires, in the least, some measure of arrogance, does it not? It requires a persistent dissatisfaction with the commotion of common sense—and here, too, there are two paths for the poet to take: toward the monad, or toward the multitude: either whittling language down to a mere handful of words, separated from all else by means of a mostly-blank page—or else he forms containers within containers within containers—an epic edifice to house the infinite translatability that is at the heart of creativity—that alchemical manipulation of the very roots of substance—that is the power he seeks to display, within language: a transcendence of forms, effected through forms.
And neither the minimal nor the maximal methods are more useful or more powerful than the other—neither the lyric nor the epic are more or less excusable—for both have at their heart a profound hubris—this pretending-to-the-Throne that has spurred and dogged and dismembered the poet time and time again, as he seeks to pass beyond initiation—imitation!
And that pretension which casts him out of his time and place, that eccentricity of his off-kilter gait, the insufferableness of his always making everything about him, about his work, about his own quivering organ of sensation—the character flaw that is his undoing, which gives the truth to the proverb: No one loves a living poet, but everyone loves a dead one—it rests in his belief that language not only effects man’s will and desires and schemes into the world, but that language might make a reality that is much finer, brighter, quicker, more subtle, more effective, more believable than that terribly bountiful beautiful life that has been given to you—
And who is to say the Poet shouldn’t be damned to an eternity of liver-rending retribution, for daring not only to believe this, but seek to prove it, again and again and again and again and again…
His eyes, squinting harder as he chased thoughts down holes and warrens of elliptical divergence (conclusions eloping endlessly just beyond his pen), twitched from the pages, and his imagination interrupted him with the vision of a Cliff—from which Ashes were being flung.
Then a headache with black splotches like fastforwarded mold throbbing over pages, tables, and walls of his corporeal stage. He leaning back into the orang booth he’d been spending all days in, eating hash Lilly bought him at noon and thumbing through butts for a puff of tarred breath, drinking cup after cup of charred coffee with creamers bit at the base so the pasteurized milk would foam atop the thin bitter broth sipped til stasis wrung his bowels, as well these migraines pulsing, pulsing—
I’d been able to keep him so far from systems, but not these abstract jaunts that filled our pages. And only when his temples pounded with pain, his cock with want, or his heart with angst-riddled inadequacy, breaking him from cogspinning cogitation, would he snatch brief sights of what lay beyond his sifting—the mythos we pined for, even as he was currently wastreling us into strained gnosis with William, the philosophy student—what gnomic aspirations would bunch up in his throat whenever he’d attempt to enact them aloud.
This dialogue had overtaken his pen two weeks after his return, when one midwinter day walking down Foster, counting out a precisely metered fantasia,1 he passed George’s and looked through the salt-slurried window to cross glances with William, his pretended mentor.
Their eyes meeting, Thomas felt compressed at once from the wide station of his freely-flung inventiveness to the size of a fabled pea, or parabolic pearl, or mythic seed—him reeling past the George’s door and carrying on to McDonald’s a block or two eastways, where he could barely afford a cheeseless hamburger, hunching over a waxy table and trembling with the pangs of a dreadful certainty in his own doubtful worth—as though were no justification for his desire to merely please the audience by means of patterned wordplay—for sense made for sensation’s sake was pure vanity and nothing more—thus must he construct a thing less playful and more serious—
Since then, I had little recourse but to allow him his prattle, as he played with a different manner of manhood than we would have of him—and so long as his theoreticism did not seek to impinge upon us ficciones, I hadn’t the resources to deny him, and perforce though not gaily allowed it, and awaited his oracular capacity to gift us fragments of the Myth we both were at root after.