On asymmetry and ‘The Hatred of Poetry.’

On asymmetry and ‘The Hatred of Poetry.’

hatredIn The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner posits that many people dislike poems for falling short of an ideal.  We hold a vision of the glory that poetry could be: we want crackling verses that would, per Rilke, inspire us to change our lives; we want phrases that speak to all without resorting to postcard platitudes; we want poems to be universal, yet firmly rooted in a particular writer’s lived experience.

But the particular is never universal.  The catacombs of memory ensure that words convey slightly different meanings to us all; the best poems revel in this private language. And we, the readers, are stubborn, inertial creatures.  It is unlikely that any page’s worth of written words will change us, no matter how magnificent.

And so actual poems fail.  The ones we read seem little different from any other set of words.  As do those we write – if you are one of the few people who reached adulthood yet still writes poems.  All children do, just as all children draw, but the world trains us to slough off artistic expression as we age.  What’s worse, many of us are taught in elementary school that poetry – the ideal again – is the deepest possible expression of self.  Language is the medium of thought, and poetry is the art of language.  Lerner suggests that, in giving up on poems, there comes a nagging sensation that we are giving up on ourselves.

Why wouldn’t we hate an art that hurts us this way?

In Lerner’s words,

Great poets confront the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality, sometimes quit writing altogether, becoming celebrated for their silence; truly horrible poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the extremity of their failure; avant-garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of becoming bombs; and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they wrongly, vaguely claim poetry once did. one thing all these demands share is that they can’t ever be fulfilled with poems.  Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defenses, too.

I can understand why a published poet like Lerner would put forward these arguments.  But I don’t agree, in large part because most people I’ve talked to sincerely enjoy poetry – ever since graduating from high school, that is, when poems were hated for being foisted upon us.  Among adults, I’ve found a dislike of poetry to be exceedingly rare.

Not many people gravitate specifically toward lyric poetry, though, especially not the sort that is featured alongside Lerner’s bio for the Poetry Foundation website.  But I believe the unpopularity of this type of poetry, with lines like “Emulsions with / Then circled the lake like / This is it.” (from Lerner’s “[By any measure]”) or “jumpsuits, they have changed / painting, I / behind the concertina wire / can’t look at it anymore …” (from Lerner’s “[jumpsuits]”), is not caused primarily by dissonance between actual poems and a reader’s pedestaled ideal.  I’d add an asymmetry of trust to the litany of offenses of which poetry stands accused in Lerner’s monograph.

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janaI do not mean to impugn asymmetry in general.  For instance, consider this beautiful passage from Jana Prikryl’s “Thirty Thousand Islands”:

Because the moon’s mass is a considerable fraction

of the earth’s, it exerts a gravitational force

on oceans as it orbits overhead, producing the

tides, or put another way, you can stand

on the shore twice daily and witness the very

water flinging itself upwards.

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This verse is secretly a paean to asymmetry.  Water has an electric dipole moment – it is asymmetric – with oppositely-charged ends attracting each other like so many microscopic magnets.  This allows water to move and flow cohesively, one molecule tugging the next along their shared path.  But the physicist and Nobel laureate Philip Warren Anderson, who made great advances in our understanding of asymmetry, writes that, as a graduate student, “this seemed very strange to me, because I was just being taught that nothing has an electric dipole moment.

Anderson elaborates:

The professor was really proving that no nucleus has a dipole moment, because he was teaching nuclear physics, but as his arguments were based on the symmetry of space and time they should have been correct in general.

I soon learned that, in fact, they were correct (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say not incorrect) because he had been careful to say that no stationary state of a system (that is, one which does not change in time) has an electric dipole moment. 

In quantum mechanics there is always a way, unless symmetry forbids, to get from one state to another.  Thus, if we start from any one unsymmetrical state, the system will make transitions to others, so only by adding up all the possible unsymmetrical states in a symmetrical way can we get a stationary state.

According to the laws of physics, the world should be symmetric.  And in the long run – on time scales that leave us dead and the Earth barren and the sun cold, impossibly far from any other source of light – the world is.  At any moment, however, objects may exhibit a temporary asymmetry (with this temporary state sustained perhaps for billions of years).  This asymmetry gives us our world.  Water that flows.  Water capable of “flinging itself upward” with the tides.

The very stars in the sky depend upon asymmetry.  According to the laws of physics, the Big Bang should’ve birthed equal amounts matter and antimatter, rapidly coalescing into nothing.  And yet, in our universe, matter predominates.  We live.

orlando-sentinelBut asymmetry in human relations can be harder to bear than the (world-enabling) asymmetries of nature.  At first blush, we thought the internet would be a great equalizer, giving a voice to all.  Instead, the increasing quantity of stuff out there has served to concentrate attention further on a dwindling number of foci.  So many in the modern world flail, shouting into the void, aspiring to fame.  The Orlando shooter checked Facebook during his crime, verifying that his humanity (at its worst) had finally been recognized.  For a moment – gun in his hand, eyes on his phone – he was as important as Beyonce.

This asymmetry is stark in poetry.  The greatest poets use language in idiosyncratic ways: they bend the rules of grammar, they use words as though their definitions were somewhat skew to those organized dissections found in dictionaries.  And readers of these poems work to understand why.  Readers at times treat great poems as puzzles: told that this combination of words is beautiful, a reader might dust and scrape with the care of an archaeologist, searching for the wellspring of that beauty.

Consider the lines I quoted from Lerner’s own work above, with constructions like “emulsions with then circled the lake” and “they have changed painting, I behind the concertina wire can’t look at it anymore.”  This is not the grammar of high school English teachers.

gilbertLerner, of course, has reasons for employing these constructions.  Just as Jack Gilbert had reasons for his choice of the adverb “commonly” in the line, “commonly I prepare for death” (from “In Between Poems”).  Just as William Shakespeare had reasons for inventing language when no existing words fit his needs.

But if average people – the uncredentialed readers of poetry – were to use words in these ways, their choices would be considered mistakes.  They are taught to trust established poets, to presume positive intent and tease out why a published poem sounds the way it does, but their own idiosyncrasies would not receive the same presumption.

This seems especially true for the people with whom I read poems most often.  Twice a week, some dozen inmates at the county jail join a co-teacher and me for poetry class.  Not every poem we bring has immediate, intuitive appeal.  But even when discussing difficult material, the men work to understand why a piece might have been written the way it was.  Then, when given paper and pencils, these men pour themselves into their own writing, for reasons Lerner well understands:

I also received multiple letters from prisoners who felt poetry publication was their best available method for asserting they were human beings, not merely criminals.  I’m not mocking these poets; I’m offering them as examples of the strength of the implicit connection between poetry and the social recognition of the poet’s humanity.  It’s an association so strong that the writers in question observe no contradiction in the fact that they are attempting to secure and preserve their personhood in a magazine that no one they know will see.

Incarcerated writers do dream that their words could allow someone to see them as human.  During one of our recent classes, TC told me that he’d seen a commercial on the jail television showing caged dogs in the pound with a voiceover saying “No animal deserves to be treated this way.”  He looked left, looked right, and started wondering: where is our commercial?

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And I’m by no means arguing that the poems written by men in jail are all great, or even good.  Drug addiction in southern Indiana has swept up all sorts, but people with money can bond out, lawyer up, and fight their cases from the outside.  They tend to win, landing treatment instead of time.  Our pay-to-play criminal justice system reserves jail for the poor.  Given the paucity of services our nation offers to impoverished children, and the underfunded state of our public schools, shunting un-aided kids straight from uncomfortable desk to uncomfortable cell, jails are full of luckless individuals who never had much scholastic success.

When inmates write, many of their poems are utter clunkmonsters, vague and sloppy and misspelled.  The men force rhymes, having conflated the concepts “poem” and “children’s book.”  Sometimes they’ll pour out saccharine repentance as though my co-teacher and I were allied with the state, rather than volunteering our time simply because this country inflicts mass incarceration on our behalf and has made us feel ashamed.  And it can be a battle convincing dudes who’ve been told over and over again “You’re bad!” that when we suggest they revise a poem, it means we liked it.

But sometimes their work is lovely.

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On a Friday afternoon last August, the men were in a particularly rotten mood.  Technological doodads break in the jail just like anywhere else, and a security camera on the fritz meant they’d been on lockdown all week.  Usually they have access to a common area and can play cards or pace back and forth, but “lockdown” means being confined to those little cells twenty-four hours a day.

Tensions were high.  And when we decided to take a few minutes for a writing prompt, they snapped.

“Nobody’s gonna read anything I write!  This won’t change shit!”

Grim.  And arguably untrue.  But…

“They’re not gonna do anything till we pull some ISIS shit, start taking off people’s heads!”

At which point my co-teacher flipped: “Fuck you, man, no.  You say shit like that, they’re gonna cancel this class.  And it’s not even fucking true.  I mean, look at this… we’re here, right?  And Frank and I are here because of shit we read.  You write it well, people will read, it will change things.”

I was nodding, although I have to admit: there’s a lot out there to read.  It’s hard for any writer to be noticed, let alone somebody pegged as an uneducated fuck-up – a criminal from southern Indiana – right off the bat.  The battle for attention can be nightmarish, giving rise to phenomena like that Orlando shooting… or the election of Donald Trump.

I have to admit: even if people do read the poems written by incarcerated men from our classes, nobody will work to understand.  These men are forced to write with one hand behind their backs, so to say.  Linguistic flourishes that would seem striking from another would be considered mistakes.

A reader must extend trust to be willing to work.  But if we trusted these men, they wouldn’t live like they do: mired in cages not fit for dogs.  Then booted out broke, job-less, home-less, med-less, into a probationary existence with far more rules than other citizens must abide by.

And yet these men dig poems.

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Lerner is correct: they’re not always keen on the abstruse lyrical sort.  That distaste seems fair.  I pray that they can one day write compelling narratives that will help change the world.  But if these uncredentialed, MFA-less men wrote tricksy lyrics, flaunting rules like Lerner does?  Then they’d be right.  Nobody would read their shit.

In their shoes (lace-less orange crocs, hosed down and issued to some new sap straight from the off-putting feet of the recently released), I too might hate lyric poetry.

On wasted ingenuity.

On wasted ingenuity.

You should read Demetrius Cunningham’s essay about learning to play the piano in prison.  He describes taping together flaps of cardboard trash and training his fingers by pressing the places where a piano’s keys would be.  It’s a beautiful piece of writing.

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And it hurts to consider what Cunningham might accomplish if he had access to more resources.

He’s not alone in striving to apply his intellect within a situation where most of his effort is – from the perspective of our modern world – simply wasted.  It’s incredible that he devised a system for learning to play piano with only cardboard at his disposal.  But we live in a world with such cheap plastics and electronics that perfectly functional keyboards can be purchased for three dollars or less at most pawn shops and thrift stores.

But Cunningham, in prison, is not allowed a three-dollar children’s toy.  He studies with cardboard.

Which is not to say that our world should be without punishment.  Those who murder need time away from society.  People should be kept safe from harm.  But I find it inconceivable that the best way to help someone who has murdered become a kinder, gentler, wiser human would be to lock him inside a world of violence, mistrust, and cement.

K’s mother, too, was murdered recently.  In her case, the man who murdered her had previously been held in New York prisons for some nine years on nonviolent drug charges.  The time he served in prison surely affected him.  Based on what little I know about life inside, that time probably affected him adversely.

So I’d argue that the state of New York’s efforts at “correction” contributed to K’s mother’s murder.  Would that man have killed her had we not shunted him into prison for nine years?  And, what of the childhood that led to his drug convictions in the first place?  Did we devote the resources necessary to ensure that he felt safe and loved as a child?  Did he have the opportunity to build a life around respected, well-compensated work?

Did Cunningham?

In my poetry classes, only one participant (that I know of) has served time for murder – in his case, 20 years thus far of a 50-year sentence.  He is an excellent writer, and very well-read, but, until our class, every time he wrote a poem or story he would crumple the pages and throw them away.

Why keep them?  The world had made very clear that no one cared what he might have to say.

Inventions are made over and over again inside: using only those spare materials allotted inside prison, how might men mimic some of the conveniences of the modern world?  In Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, a clear-eyed description of the 1971 Attica prison riot and its aftermath, she describes the jury-rigged water heaters many inmates built for their cells.

Or there’s her passage on the amenities:

bloodinthewaterThe men needed money at Attica because the state offered them only a few items gratis.  These included a thin gray coat, two gray work shirts, three pairs of gray pants, one pair of shoes, three pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks, and one comb.  Then, every month, prisoners would receive one bar of soap and one roll of toilet paper, which meant that men were forced to limit themselves “to one sheet per day.”  The state’s food budget allotment was also meager.  At a mere 63 cents per prisoner per day, it was insufficient to meet the minimum dietary standards as determined by federal guidelines.  The reality was that many men at Attica went to bed hungry.  For this reason jobs in the kitchen or the mess hall, while more arduous than others given their seven-day-a-week schedule, were some of the most coveted.  At least on those jobs a man could eat leftovers.

To get anything beyond the supplies given them – warmer clothes, more food, toiletries like toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, razors, and extra toilet paper – prisoners needed money.  Being able to buy deodorant was no luxury since these men were allowed only one shower a week and were given only two quarts of water a day.  With this water prisoners were expected to wash their socks and underwear, shave, brush their teeth, and clean the cell to a correction officer’s exacting standards.

Prisoners had to be clever to endure such conditions.  Likewise, it takes more cleverness to survive childhood poverty than is needed for a privileged middle class existence of soccer leagues at birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese and A’s stamped on the state achievement tests.

But our world doesn’t celebrate the former type of cleverness.  We prize instead earned wealth and good grades.  And yet, think: what if all that ingenuity weren’t wasted?  What if more of our nation’s childhood survivalists and prisonyard Edisons had been given a fair opportunity?

I love capitalism and the chance for people to profit from their discoveries.  But capitalism crumbles without opportunity.  Especially now, with automation at the forefront of technology, a system rewarding past capital ownership will waste more and more human ingenuity.  The class of those born into opportunity will keep shrinking.

Of course, those privileged few – armed with their intentional misunderstandings of economics and technology – will argue otherwise.  That’s how we got here in the first place.