Ground zero Baudelaire

'Into It' and the poetics of shock


The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word for “to uncover,” and one of the most apocalyptic passages in Lawrence Joseph’s Into It (2005) is the first section of “Why Not Say What Happens?” It reads as follows:

Of icons. Of divination. Of Gods. Repetitions
without end. I have it in my notes,
a translation from the Latin, a commentary
on the Book of Revelation — “the greater
the concentration of power on earth,
the more truth is stripped of its power,
the holiest innocent, in eternity,
is ‘as though slain …’”
It has nothing to do with the apocalyptic.
The seven-headed beast from the sea,
the two-horned beast from the earth, have always —
I know, I’ve studied it — been with us.
Me? I’m only an accessory to particular images.[1]

Despite the poet’s assertion that “It has nothing to do with the apocalyptic,” something is definitely being uncovered here. If “it” refers, as I believe it does, not only the events of 9/11 (toward which the poem, and much of the rest of the book, inescapably gravitates), but to the catastrophic “concentration of power on earth” and the resultant stripping of the power of truth which constitutes recent history, then the utterly profane nature of the world itself becomes a revelation. Icons, divination, gods — the traditional religious concepts through which we figure earthly disaster — may repeat themselves without end, but the fact of the matter is that human corruption is, and always has been, the one subject truly under discussion. And the poet? “Careful!” (as he says of capital later in the poem): the poet claims to be “only an accessory to particular images,” the images which, presumably, are presented to us — imposed upon us — throughout these poems, in all their elliptical violence. Accessory? Was John of Patmos only an accessory when the angel called upon him to eat the little book? The poet, Joseph implies, is no prophet, nor does he have to be, since the beasts which symbolize evil in Revelation are all too human, and have always been with us. At best, the poet is a commentator, or a student of the commentaries. Be that as it may, like John, he still testifies.

Following Joseph’s lead in his essay “Theories of Poetry, Theories of Law,” critics of his work have given a great deal of consideration to his status as attorney and law professor, particularly in regard to his use of terms like “accessory.” John Lowney  observes that

To be an “accessory before the fact” or “an accessory after the fact” in legal terms implies complicity but not presence in the commitment of an offense. For a poet to claim that he is an “accessory to particular images” suggests a somewhat different subject position, a position that is subordinate or supplementary to the images, a position that decenters the poet but does not remove his agency.

Agency is always a concern in discussing contemporary poetry, since so many poets seek to displace or undermine the agency that is traditionally associated with the voice of the lyric subject. Joseph’s position in regard to this matter is particularly nuanced. As he explains in an interview with Charles Bernstein, “For me, a poem’s telling is in the voice or voices of compressed, condensed thought, feeling, observations, perceptions — compression that is achieved by employing various sorts of refracted language, including prosody — what Stein and Williams called ‘grammar.’” Joseph’s “refracted” or dissociative procedures, which he refines in Before Our Eyes (1993) and employs with such startling power in Into It, indeed decenter the poet, but I would argue that, through an ironic turn, they actually strengthen his agency. Behind the abrupt voices, the interrupted reportage, the ominous, fragmented recitations of public and private disasters, the poet forcefully makes his presence known. Again, from the interview with Bernstein: “The self who is speaking in the poem is a self who exists with an identity or identities — or, more accurately, as a self who is identified in certain ways. The self or selves who speak in the poem are constructed through various vocal languages that reflect thoughts, perceptions, feelings, often in terms of identity.” Outraged, indignant, but still given to bursts of compassion and startled love, the poet regards himself, as he declares at the end of “Woodward Avenue,” as “So many selves — / the one who detects the sound of a voice, / that voice — the voice that compounds / his voice — that self obedient to that fate, / increased, enlarged, transparent, changing” (Into It, 18).

So the poet’s fate is to be possessed of a voice that compounds his voice, enlarges him, changes him even as, to use the title of another poem in Into It, “The Game Changed.” “Give me the voice / To tell the shifting story,” runs the volume’s epigraph from The Metamorphoses. Through the changes in the “game” and in himself, Joseph seeks to fulfill his “intent to make a large, serious / portrait of my time” (64) — and this despite his frustrated observation in “Inclined to Speak” that “The immense enlargement / of our perspectives is confronted / by a reduction in our powers of action” (12). Yet this corrosive self-consciousness does not in any way detract from the book’s pervasive urgency. If anything, the self-consciousness of the compounded voice adds to the sense that we are reading a document that, despite and because of its uncanny artfulness, is propelling us into history. And by history, I do not mean the accounts or even analyses of given events as produced by normative historiography. Rather, I mean events pushed to the point of crisis interacting with the vagaries of human subjectivity. Or as Joseph puts it in “History for Another Time,” “Pressure is what / it’s about, and pressure’s incalculable — / which eludes the historian” (59). Thus it becomes the poet’s task (but then, it has always been the poet’s task) to acknowledge that pressure, to find the means by which it may play itself out in the poem, and to accommodate that pressure in himself as well as in those around him, as he tries in turn to give us a large, serious portrait of the time.

In an attempt to situate Joseph’s poetry in relation to the shifts in style and reader expectations in the past two to three decades, Lisa M. Steinman notes that Before Our Eyes “neither gives up on subjectivity (in the sense of representing interiority) nor abandons the suggestion that however difficult to represent or malleable they might be, there are both social and physical worlds with which subjects interact and by which they are formed even as they reform what is seen in language.” Steinman observes that the arc of Joseph’s career parallels the move from what Charles Altieri calls the “scenic style,” with its quasi-autobiographical, centered voice, often given to the task of witness, to the more disruptive, linguistically and epistemologically oriented poetry that has by now made its way into the mainstream — though even in the eighties, when Joseph’s first two books came out, these two modes were already in conflict. I agree that there is a shift in Joseph’s style between his first two books and his second two, and that in the latter, a greater linguistic self-consciousness and a more jagged, dissociative technique predominates.

But I would also note that, important as these changes may be, Joseph’s poetic goals have in some respects remained the same: he wants to tell the story of the “pressure” placed upon us by history, of how we have placed that pressure upon ourselves. “For me,” he observes in the interview with Bernstein, “an — if not the — formal issue in making a poem is how, compositionally, to express, to explain, both interiorized and exteriorized realities.” These are indeed matters of what Steinman calls the “social and physical worlds,” matters of linguistic representation, and of interiority — all of which, given modern and postmodern conditions, are under assault, all of which are registering shock. One could say that ever since he was “pulled from a womb / into a city,”[2] Joseph has sought increasingly more effective ways of “mixing / emotional perceptions and digressions, // choler, melancholy, a sanguine view” (Codes, 160). And even as the need “to see everything simultaneously” has grown more urgent, the righteous anger of the prophet who takes umbrage at his calling (and what prophet does not?) remains the engine of the poem. The suffering of the immigrant Joseph family, the wreckage of Detroit, the criminality in the streets and skyscrapers of New York City, and finally, the destruction of the World Trade Center and its global aftermath — Joseph’s poetry is the existential seismograph of personal history and of history writ large. Or as he understates the matter in “When One Is Feeling One’s Way,” “Two things, the two things that are interesting / are history and grammar” (Into It, 6).


In his magisterial essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Walter Benjamin argues that the menacing spectacle of the urban crowd, described by mid-nineteenth-century writers as diverse as Poe and Engels, “became decisive for Baudelaire. If he succumbed to the force by which he was drawn to them and, as a flaneur, was made one of them, he was nevertheless unable to rid himself of a sense of their essentially inhuman makeup. He becomes their accomplice even as he dissociates himself from them. He becomes deeply involved with them, only to relegate them to oblivion with a single glance of contempt.”[3] Benjamin goes on to analyze the shock effect of the crowd for Baudelaire, and how, for the individual, “nervous impulses flow through him in rapid succession, like the energy from a battery. Baudelaire speaks of a man who plunges into a crowd as into a reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls this man “a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness.”[4]

Taken all together, I can think of no better description of Joseph’s stance in Into It. Attraction and repulsion, sympathy and contempt, identification and alienation — these are the antitheses which determine the key in which Joseph’s book is written. Joseph’s response to the crowd, which is to say the people of Manhattan, changes moment to moment, line by line. Like Baudelaire’s man registering the experience of urban shock, Joseph is a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness, but a kaleidoscope equipped with language as well. This instrument is repeatedly brought to bear on individuals in the crowd; the poet attempts to keep his distance, struggles with his contempt, but, as Benjamin understands, inevitably becomes an accomplice. George Oppen, writing about New York City in Of Being Numerous, likewise faces these “ghosts that endanger // One’s soul” and pointedly declares that “one may honorably keep // His distance / If he can.”[5] Living and writing through and after 9/11, Joseph’s work has a verbal speed and intensity that contrasts dramatically with the meditative deliberation of Oppen’s masterpiece. But both poets understand the problem of honorably keeping one’s distance, and their poetry records their struggles.

Into It, then, may be understood as the intricate verbalization of a kaleidoscopic vision of historical catastrophe, even as the poet constantly questions his role. A poem such as “What Do You Mean, What?” (a quintessential New York expression, which reminds me of the title of Hugh Seidman’s “People Live, They Have Lives”) caroms from one instance to the next of what Joseph calls “this individual and collectivized looting / of the most astonishing complexity, / each point of an imagined circuit / attached to each of the others” (Into It, 20). Movement along this “imagined circuit” follows immediately thereafter:

In the King James Hotel in a bath towel,
solicitous with the interviewer
who crosses her long, tanned legs, smiling at him
when he says you need a billion
just to get into the game; on my way downtown
(no, he answers, he doesn’t own his own taxi),
his name is Thomas Saint Thomas, a green card
is what he owns, a working man from Haiti —
he’ll play for me (I, perhaps, have not yet heard)
a tape cassette of a speech
concerning the imminent coming of Jesus Christ
Word Incarnate, Second Person of the Triune God,
who’ll whip the moneylenders out of the temple. (20)

Note how the narration in this stanza (Joseph is fascinated with the possibilities of narration in lyric poetry) literally turns on the semicolon and resultant caesura in the fifth line. It both divides and links the two vignettes (in the hotel and in the taxi) and the four figures (the man in the towel, the interviewer, the cabbie and “I”). The news of Christ’s imminent return as announced on the cassette sends us back to the billionaire giving the interview, who undoubtedly deserves whipping. The poet, the first-person speaker in the taxi, is situated simultaneously inside and outside of the action. Benjamin’s term is “accomplice”; Joseph’s term, as we noted earlier, is “accessory.” In the “shifting story” that is the poem, the poet insists on his distance from the corruption he perceives around him, but his sympathy draws him continually into the crowd and the physical spaces — particularly those of lower Manhattan — that they occupy. There is something honorable about Thomas Saint Thomas, this “working man from Haiti,” whether we can accept his religious fervor or not. There is something unbearably poignant about the poet’s observation of a “lavender (green for youth, blue for love) sky — / a shadow, distinct, beautiful pink detail, / of all places on the pier with wooden benches / near Canal Street” (20–21). And there is something terribly scary and sad about the poor soul with whom we are presented as the poem ends:

The rain was like ice. The umbrella placed
over the phone booth. “I’m all right.”
“What do you mean, what?” “Why don’t you leave it
at that?” “Are you sure?” “Don’t think that way.”
“Yes, forever.” And so on, the script proceeded. (21)

In “Notions of Poetry and Narration,”  Joseph quotes William Carlos Williams from A Novelette: “Conversation as design … actual to the extent that it would be pure design.… Purely what? Conversation of which there is none in novels and the news.” The scraps of the phone conversation that make up the last stanza of the poem are indeed a design, presented briefly and imagistically, unlike such presentation in a novel or the news. The vignette is more, perhaps, like a very brief scene in a movie, and as Benjamin demonstrates, film is the preeminent modern art because it embodies the experience of shock: “The spectator’s process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change. This constitutes the shock effect of the film, which like all shocks, should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind.”[6] There is, then, something shocking about the way Joseph suddenly thrusts this man in the midst of an obviously stressful conversation into our field of perception. Nor does he offer any sense of closure or resolution. “And so on, the script proceeded” — because the catastrophe is continuous. Once again, Benjamin: “The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe.”[7]


Joseph’s poetry is suffused with this awareness, resulting in a deep historical pessimism, and an equally deep sense of poetic responsibility. Although there can be no doubt that (as we have observed apropos of Joseph’s title), “The Game Changed” after 9/11, in another respect, 9/11 was only a continuation, or an intensification, of “the game.” The poetic result, paradoxically, is “A continuity in which everything is transition” (Into It, 65).

The fundamental instability of history, of the flow of events and their violent impediments, matched by the perceived instability of the poetic speaker positioned both inside and outside of that flow, produces a unique tone in Into It. It is a tone that conveys — again, paradoxically — a sense of both inevitability and contingency, or what Joseph identifies near the end of “Metamorphoses (After Ovid)” as “A poetry of autonomies, / bound by a transcendent necessity” (52). Writing such a poetry presents tremendous epistemological and formal challenges. Dissociation, condensation, heteroglossia, rapid shifts across diverse discursive registers: these modernist and postmodernist procedures are a given, but in Into It, they are subordinated to something more, something toward which the poet can only gesture. “Metamorphoses” concludes with these lines:

Plato’s idea

of anamnesis, what is in us is remembered,
that which we are destined, in thoughts and in images,

to give expression to. Concentration
aural and visual. A table covered with pages of notes

I compose as I feel. Through my beginning
through to my end, my moira, my allotted part.

When this time comes to an end, what I don’t write
will not exist. I did my work, lived

as if the day, my own day, had come. I was, I am,
who I will be. I will not be eternally condemned. (52)

Here, the poet insists on his integrity, guaranteed, as it were, by that “transcendent necessity,” which is in turn related to the Platonic anamnesis, the remembering of something otherwise lost, and its expression aurally and visually “in thoughts and in images.” The poet in his time, of his time, rightly insists that “When this time comes to an end, what I don’t write / will not exist.” In the face of an endless forgetting — a forgetting, I would venture to say, exacerbated by the contemporary media, through which all is recorded, archived and lost — he willingly accepts the role of recorder as his “moira,” his fate. The sense of historical, perhaps even divine judgment grows palpable, in the face of which the poet declares, “I did my work.”

The concept of judgment, of course, leads us back to Joseph’s complex self-awareness as a lawyer-poet, his sense of himself as an instrument and a critic of the law, which also returns us to his status as both insider and outsider. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening lines of “The Game Changed”:

The phantasmic imperium is set in a chronic
state of hypnotic fixity. I have absolutely
no idea what the fuck you’re talking about
was his reply, and he wasn’t laughing,
either, one of the most repellent human beings
I’ve ever known, his presence a gross and slippery
lie, a piece of chemically pure evil. A lawyer —
although the type’s not exclusive to lawyers.
A lot of different minds touch, and have touched,
the blood money in the dummy account
in an offshore bank, washed clean, free to be
transferred into a hedge fund or a foreign
brokerage account, at least half a trillion
ending up in the United States, with more to come.
I believe I told you I’m a lawyer. Which has had
little or no effect on a certain respect
I have for occurrences that suggest laws
of necessity. I too am thinking of it
as a journey — the journey with conversations
otherwise known as the Divina Commedia
is how Osip Mandelstam characterized Dante’s poem. (63)

This passage merits an essay unto itself, and here I can only point to a few of its most important features. Again we see Joseph’s reliance on Williams’ “conversation as design.” If we assume that on a literal level, the conversation in question is about the “blood money,” then we are dealing almost immediately with a breakdown in communication, a failure of conversation which ironically becomes the design. The poet, the first-person speaker, offers an abstract critique of the situation and its causes: “The phantasmic imperium is set in a chronic / state of hypnotic fixity,” to which his interlocutor responds with “I have absolutely / no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.” This response makes perfect sense: although both are lawyers, the two individuals are speaking different languages — representing very different worldviews which include two different ways of understanding the law. For the man whom the poet calls “a piece of chemically pure evil,” being a lawyer is a matter of power and expediency, and the law is to be manipulated to further for one’s self-interest. For the poet, being a lawyer grants him highly refined insights into such manipulations. But he also acknowledges something higher: the “laws / of necessity” (that is, the “transcendent necessity” we observed previously), about which poets have traditionally had the deepest understanding.

This accounts in part for the poet’s role not merely of lawyer but of judge, and he judges the other lawyer to be “one of the most repellent human beings / I’ve ever known.” Indeed, the design of conversation is a design of judgment, a necessary judgment. Hence the invocation of the Commedia, and Mandelstam’s observation that the poem is a “journey with conversations.” The description applies to Joseph’s writing as well, both in his poetry and, of course, in his prose work Lawyerland. Dante the Pilgrim is on a journey which consists largely of conversations in hell, purgatory and heaven. But in the Inferno particularly (and Joseph, for the most part, remains a poet of our secular Inferno), Dante is also a judge, and he (or Virgil) both articulate and sometimes question the laws of necessity that have led to the vision of divine judgment that lies before him. Joseph too is a severe poet of judgment, and if Into It is not quite our Inferno, as it is not quite our Fleurs du Mal, Joseph may rightfully claim to be part of that classical lineage.


My use of the term “classical lineage” is quite deliberate, and it is in the light of Joseph’s classicism that I will conclude. In his very brief (forthcoming) essay “A Note on ‘That’s All’” (“That’s All” is a poem which originally appeared in Curriculum Vitae), Joseph discusses his desire “to achieve a sense of control, balance and lucidity, a classical claritas,” as he juxtaposes New York City, Detroit, and the Shouf mountains of Lebanon from which his grandfathers originally emigrated. The “I” of the poem is intended to be a figure “who both reacted to and was a part of these worlds.” The poem, written in loose ten-syllable couplets designed to achieve the control and balance Joseph seeks, leads the poet to conclude that “Its formal lineage is classical.” It is a brave claim, but I would argue that it applies not only to “That’s All” but to much of Joseph’s poetry, including the poems of Into It. Nor is it only a matter of form, as this term is usually understood.

In “What Is a Classic?,” T. S. Eliot associates the classic with the notion of “maturity,” and argues that a “classic can only occur when a civilization is mature; when a language and literature are mature; and it must be the work of a mature mind. It is the importance of that civilization and of that language, as well as the comprehensiveness of the mind of the individual poet, which gives the universality.”[8] As for “maturity of mind,” Eliot observes that “this needs history, and the consciousness of history. Consciousness of history cannot be fully awake, except where there is other history than the history of the poet’s own people: we need this in order to see our own place in history” (122). American civilization, American literature, and the American language may all be reaching a point of maturity — and there is no doubt that the events of 9/11 and their aftermath have made Americans more conscious of their history, and of the history of other nations. Before 9/11, Joseph was already refining a style that comprehended some of the most balanced, intelligent, and effective qualities of American and of international modernism. But 9/11 gave Joseph a subject that could match that style and brought it to a level of maturity and verbal intensity that to my mind constitutes the classic. That he had firsthand experience of the events — he lived, and still lives, in a thirty-third floor apartment on South End Avenue, a block from Ground Zero; his wife, the artist Nancy Van Goethem, was at home at the time of the attack — imbues the work with an unmatched testimonial authority.

“Once Again,” the last, magnificently Stevensian poem in Into It, unfolds its couplets in lower Manhattan, on the “The esplanade. High summer” (66), just a few blocks from Ground Zero. It reflects upon “Fate’s precisive wheel revolving,” generating, through the “dream technique” of the poem, the myth of “new types of half-monsters,” balanced against “a woman, a man, / love’s characters, the myth // their own” (67). Monsters and lovers: what Joseph names “the primary soul-substance” of the human story is revised continuously by history, which for all its reworkings, manages to remind us, through the voice of the poet, that in another respect nothing has changed at all. Previously, I referred to Joseph as a kaleidoscope imbued with consciousness: kaleidoscope, from kalon and eidos, beautiful shape, turning and turning, changing and never changing, in Fate’s revolving wheel.

Eliot, whose classical touchstones include Virgil, Dante, and Baudelaire, notes that Baudelaire was “a classicist, born out of his due time. In […] his sensibility, he is near to Dante.”[9] Whether Joseph is also “a classicist, born out of his due time” is an open question — what does that mean, after all, for any artist who successfully tells the fate of his time? Be that as it may, it does seem to me that however acutely Joseph registers the violent shocks to America in this first decade of the century, his poetry has also maintained its equilibrium brilliantly, achieving a classic balance. And in this respect, on “Fate’s precisive wheel revolving,” he helps us regain our balance too.



1.  Joseph, Into It (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005), 24. Hereafter cited in text.

2.  Joseph, Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems, 1973–1993 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 3.

3.  Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), 172.

4.  Ibid., 175.

5.  George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002), 170–71.

6.  Ibid., 238.

 7.  Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 473.

8.  T. S. Eliot, Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 116.

9.  Quoted in Ronald Schuchard, Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Art and Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 141.

I to eye

Self and society in the poetry of Lawrence Joseph

For most of his career as a writer, Lawrence Joseph has stood outside the prevailing schools of poetry, but his uniqueness has been hard-won, and is the product of his evolution as a poet. Reading his four books of poems chronologically reveals not just the important continuities — his concern with identity, religion, language, and politics — but the important changes, all of which will come to define his exceptional place among his contemporaries. Hardly a static poet with a closed system of ideas and imagery, Joseph emerges over time as a poet with a clear sense of the world outside himself. In short, his poems begin with a hypersense of the self, expressed in numerous poems with the poet (the “I” of most of the early poems) at the center. But, as even a cursory reading of Joseph’s later books shows, the “I” has almost disappeared, replaced in effect by what Joseph calls in one poem (the title of which lends itself to the title of this Symposium): “the transparent eye.”[1] That poem also provides a template of sorts for Joseph’s entire work, against which we can measure his shifts in voice and vision: “Some sort of chronicler I am, mixing / emotional perceptions and digressions, // choler, melancholy, a sanguine view. / Through a transparent eye, the need, sometimes, // to see everything simultaneously / — strange need to confront everyone // with equal respect.” The poet makes clear that his vision is democratic, looking up and down society with respect for all. And he wants to see it all at once: a synchronicity of experience that encompasses both the street and skyscraper. He will accomplish all this with many emotional responses and plenty of pertinent digressions, and we can expect little humor or exuberance, but lots of somber, sober thought. As he tells us in an earlier poem, “Not Yet,” in words reminiscent of Saul Bellow’s Augie March, himself another urban ethnic: “I want it all” (21).

The move in Joseph’s poetry from a highly subjective self to a greater objective eye in a way relies on the intensely personal early work. Joseph could not evolve into the sophisticated observer of the later work without this outburst of emotional expression in the early work. In Shouting at No One (1983), Joseph establishes the contours of his history, which will surface in later poems, but there only obliquely, and not always identifiable as personal history. Joseph discovers himself as a young ethnic Catholic in Detroit, only to push those facts into the background in his later work. The first book reads therefore very much as a first book. In poem after poem, Joseph appeals to the reader’s sense of authenticity — he wants us to know his story, and his family’s story, and the story of his city. The surest sign of this is his reliance on an abundance of local detail. Beaufail Street, Fort Street, Van Dyke Avenue, Mt. Elliott Street, Boston Boulevard, Vernor Highway, Dix Highway, Mack Avenue, Bellevue Street — the list of streets named in this volume goes on, all of them, one assumes, in Detroit, “a city that moans in its dirt” (“Even the Idiot Makes Deals,” 59). Joseph doesn’t limit himself to street signs, but includes local places of business, with their strange, colorful, and evocative names, like Resurrection Lounge, Eastern Market, Buck’s Eat Place, Eldon Axle — suggesting, in short order, the religious, ethnic, and class makeup of his Detroit. And let us not ignore the churches: Saint Anne’s, Saint Maron’s Cathedral, Our Lady of Redemption Melchite Catholic Church, Our Lady of Lourdes, and Saint John Nepomocene — one of which invokes the unusual Catholicism of Joseph’s ancestors, the Maronite Catholics of the Near East. So far, welcome to Joseph’s Detroit: the Motor City, the land of Dodge Truck and the Whole Truth Mission, of Henry Ford and Marvin Gaye, and perhaps most of all, Joseph’s Market.

At the center of Joseph’s early work is family myth — not, mind you, myth in the sense of not being true, but in the notion that these narrative details will provide a foundational story, aspects of which Joseph will refer to time and again. His family-owned store figures in many of the early poems, as does the primal scenes of his father’s shooting and the 1967 Detroit riots. The first poem of his first book, “Then,” set during the riots, not only narrates this key moment in Joseph’s past, but makes clear its significance: “it would take nine years / before you’d realize the voice howling in you / was born then” (8). The anger and despair which characterize so many of the early poems were also born at the moment, as was Joseph’s sense of himself as both avenging angel and “the poet of heaven” (3).[2] The poem “Not Yet” further emphasizes this fundamental truth of Joseph’s early work. Contemplating his father breathing unevenly, the poet confronts his anger and vows to speak out: “I don’t want / the angel inside me, sword in hand, / to be silent” (21–22). This scene plays itself out again when his uncle, also working at Joseph’s Market, recalls his near-fatal stabbing during a robbery (59). The poet eventually reaches further back in family lore — to Lebanon, most of all, in the longer poem, “The Phoenix Has Come To A Mountain In Lebanon,” a poem in which the “I” does not speak for the poet. Instead, nameless peasants speak of the promise of America (“another world”) where money can be made in factories (29). It is a generalized account of the great Diaspora — the source of so many new Americans, including the poet’s grandparents and Khatchig Gaboudabian, the Turkish immigrant to Detroit whose story lends itself to one of Joseph’s longer poems not about himself or his family.[3]

Though family history plays an important part in Joseph’s early poems, he also focuses on the emigrants’ place of arrival: Detroit, a city desperate for salvation: “Who will save / Detroit now?” the poem “Fog” asks (33). And it is clear that Joseph considers himself a poet of that city. Contemplating the murdered Thigpen in “I Think About Thigpen Again,” the poet recognizes a kindred spirit — a fledgling poet in Thigpen’s case, who writes about the ugly side of Detroit life. “He would,” we are told, “be the poet of this hell” (16). To be sure, plenty of other Detroiters exist in Joseph’s early poems, but they are mostly described in a line or two, and often come from the street life he sees all around him: junkies, drunks, gang members, a mad woman. And lest any readers doubt Joseph’s own credibility as a singer of his city, he mentions a number of his own and others’ work experiences in typical Detroit jobs — at Hudson Motorcar in “Nothing and No One and Nowhere To Go,” “over [a] machine” in “In The Tenth Year of War” (51), and at Dodge Truck in “I Had No More To Say,” where Joseph “swung differentials, / greased bearings, / lifted hubs to axle casings / in 110° heat” (11). Detroit determines most of the imagery throughout the poems as well — the yellow smoke, the pig iron, the press machines, the giant magnets looming over the cityscape.

The poem which best sums up the first book is “There Is a God Who Hates Us So Much.” All of Joseph’s early concerns come together in this five-part, intensely subjective work: the matter of Detroit, Joseph’s identity as a poet, his Catholicism, and his family’s history. In the first lines of the poem, we come to understand the full meaning of the announcement in the book’s prologue that the “you” who “will be pulled from a womb / into a city” (3) is the poet, and that the city is Detroit: “I was pulled from the womb / into this city” (46), Joseph proclaims, and further asserts later in the poem that he is in fact “the poet of my city” (48). This city of burning air, bloody and greasy hands, and scary streets is “the shadow / strapped” to his back; he is also “the poet of that shadow.” From his parents the poet has learned about silence, sadness, and violence. The final quatrains set the overwhelming question for the early work: how can God allow all this — the city in flames, a father shot? In words that echo that other poet of Detroit, Marvin Gaye, the city “makes [him] want to holler” (50). And why not? He has done his time on his knees, kissed statues, held holy candles and palm branches, received communion, and prayed to emulate the saints. Clearly, as he says twice, “There is a God who hates us so much.” In another sense, he also identifies, perhaps unintentionally, his limits so far as poet: amidst the sounds of his city, he “could not abstract” (47).

In other words, Joseph in his first book filters the world — a world mostly confined to family and Detroit — largely through himself; he does not “abstract,” or perceive things objectively because he feels everything so intensely and personally. He does not deny but is angry with God, as many of the later poems in the book suggest. The poet acknowledges his transgressions — sexual thoughts mainly, but lies also — and comes to a final realization in the poem that gives the volume its title: it is not just the speaker “shouting at no one,” but, more significantly, “it’s God / roaring inside me, afraid / to be alone” (60).

Joseph’s second volume, Curriculum Vitae (1988), collected in Codes, continues with many of the concerns in Shouting at No One, still relying on his personal story as an ethnic Catholic in Detroit who has seen his share of working-class life. But Joseph also advances his larger design, becoming in the poems more self-conscious about his own identity, and coming closer to that democratic ideal articulated in “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am” — a poet who surveys mankind from the factory floor to the boardroom.

So once again we find ourselves on the streets of Detroit — Dexter, Linwood, Brush, and the rest. And a new church is added to the list: the Shrine of the Little Flower. “There I Am Again” reminds us of the foundational story and its pull on the poet. No matter how hard he tries, he is still “in Joseph’s Market […] / […] always, everywhere, // […] the grocer’s son / angry, ashamed, and proud as the poor with whom he deals” (121). This poem concludes the volume, after Joseph has narrated more tales of his native city. “Factory Rat,” for one, speaks to his credibility as a worker, and other poems mention his brushes with famous Detroiters: “the largest independent” bookmaker in America (“This Much Was Mine,” 79) and the notorious Father Coughlin (“This Is How It Happens”). For the first, the poet caddies, for the other he serves as an altar boy.

At the same time, Joseph explores the deeper meanings of his ethnic heritage in poems such as “Rubaiyat,” “In the Beginning Was Lebanon” — the title here speaks for itself — and, most famously, in “Sand Nigger,” a brilliant collage of Eastern and urban images narrated by “a Levantine nigger / in the city on the strait” (92). Again, Joseph underlines the significance of Lebanon for his history; quite simply, “Lebanon is everywhere / in the house” (90). The immigrant family still figures in his work, though one could not characterize poems such as “My Eyes Are Black as Hers,” “Mama Remembers,” or “My Grandma Weighed Almost Nothing” — poems that face the very brutal realities of hard years with little money, miscarriages, a legless patriarch, and death by cancer — as nostalgic.

Joseph also moves beyond Detroit in Curriculum Vitae, in part to establish the authenticity of his experiences first, as a student overseas (“Stop Me If I’ve Told You” and “London”); then, as a law student (“An Awful Lot Was Happening”); and, finally, in a number of poems, as a lawyer in Manhattan. The poems set in New York best articulate Joseph’s desire and need to see society vertically. The demands of work “[i]n the offices of the great firm” (76–77) bring with them a crisis of sorts — not just the poet’s sense of not belonging, but also the constant contrast between the dizzying world of big money and the scuzzy reality of the street. In true Joseph fashion, we are very often in the street, and by name, whether Barrow or Hudson, Broad or Wall. A fancy meal in “I’ve Already Said More Than I Should” summons a memory of his grandmother walking with canes. After contemplating “the transfer of 2,675,000,000 dollars / by tender offer,” the poet thinks “about third cousins in the Shouf” (97). “I Pay the Price” suggests the moral economy at work for the young lawyer: He listens to “market analysts” as well as an incontinent madman lying on the sidewalk as he has to “distance” himself to see himself as someone “protecting interests” (106). From his apartment with a “good view” of the Brooklyn Bridge, he ponders a worker with a bandaged hand and thinks to himself: “I live in words and off my flesh / in order to pay the price” (105–106).

And what is the price? The poem “Any and All,” one of the strongest in the volume, best answers the question, moving up and down with rhythmic certainty while veering inward with a calm clarity. The drama also is vivid: the phone rings and the memory of a blind woman on the street vanishes as he is summoned to a partner’s office:

The lawyers from Mars and the bankers
from Switzerland have arrived to close the deal,
the money in their heads articulated
to the debt of the state of Bolivia. (113)

The language of law, the poem suggests — with its silly obsessions about the use of “any” or “all” — is in fact Martian talk to the rest of us. And the amounts of money at stake can be breathtaking, because, as he asserts a little later, Wall Street is the “emblematic reality of extreme / speculations and final effects” (113). The street-level scenes continue to draw his attention in the poem, but so do the anxieties of the workplace, where he cannot afford to laugh or identify with the blue bloods.

As much as Curriculum Vitae rehearses the matters of Lebanon and Detroit, as well as the poet’s ongoing sense of his Catholicism, it also represents the first serious engagement with a more aestheticized sense of the self. The epigraph from Wallace Stevens speaks to this concern, suggesting the notion that “in nature and in metaphor identity is the vanishing-point of resemblance” (63). And what does it mean in the first poem of the book, “In the Age of Postcapitalism,” that “the question ‘What Has Become of / the Question of “I”’” is discussed “at the Institute for Political Economy” (65)? Though Joseph asks that we abstract the “I” of the poems, it doesn’t seem to happen, for example, in the title poem, a succinct outline of the contours of his life: Beirut ancestors, Detroit birth, Catholic childhood, burgeoning sexuality, study abroad, the law. And the poet punctuates this litany with the language of authenticity: he “walked;” he “talked;” he “witnessed.” He wants us to believe he remains “many different people” but, for all intents and purposes, he’s still the Lawrence Joseph of “Let Us Pray,” not “Myself / an abstraction” of “Stop Me If I’ve Told You” (86, 87).

The concern with a subjective self in Curriculum Vitae comes to the fore in Joseph’s next volume, Before Our Eyes (1993, reprinted in Codes), a pivotal work that moves away from obsessive personal history into poems of greater length, longer lines, and more abstract thinking. The title poem (which is also the first poem) of Before Our Eyes functions as a kind of ars poetica:

[…] The point is to bring
depths to the surface, to elevate
sensuous experience into speech
and the social contract. (125)

The poet declares his work will be “a morality of seeing,” for which he might be dismissed. But the aim is true: to transform what he sees and feels into language, and, then, provide the greater contexts within the world outside himself, “the social contract.” He runs through some images familiar from his own history, wondering “don’t street smarts / matter?” (126). But ends with more aesthetic concerns: “The pure metaphoric / rush through with senses” probably “best kept to oneself.” For the length of this book, Joseph suggests “let’s just keep to what’s before our eyes.” The payoff is substantial in Before Our Eyes because Joseph makes his strongest statement of his artistic credo, and it is connected to his quest for an authentic self. Rather, he observes the world with a subdued spirit and, as noted above, with a “transparent eye.”

The most Detroit-centric poem in this volume is called, interestingly enough, “Sentimental Education,” as if the poet were dismissing such a memory-laden narrative. Interesting also is that the poet is not all that much present in the poem, returning to Detroit “because you want to” (147). Moreover, the education of the title refers to what the city can teach — about Henry Ford and Marvin Gaye, but not as personal icons, as in early poems, but as parts of history. The poet refers to his “baptism by fire” in Detroit, but there is also a pervasive sense of farewell to all that (146). And in many ways, the rest of the book confirms it: the matter at hand is now Manhattan, and the poems authenticate the fact with the Joseph touch: he walks, among others, Horatio Street, Cornelia Street, Water Street, Grove Street, St. Luke’s Place and so on. “Material Facts,” as its title suggests, is all about observing the facts of the city and hearing its voices, with one telling interruption: “Myself, / self-made, separated from myself, / who cares?” (128). The poet displays here and in the following poem in the volume a sense of exhaustion with his previous self. In “Admissions Against Interest,” he asserts:

Mind you, though, my primary rule:
never use the word “I” unless you have to,
but sell it cheaply to survive. (131)

The poem also reminds us that “[a] lot of substance / chooses you” and that the poet would be lost with out his “Double” (132) Less concerned with his quest for an authentic self, he notices again that “the times demanded figuring out” and that “now I’m seeing / words are talk and words themselves // forms of feeling” (133–34). Other poems in Before Our Eyes demonstrate very objective, “I”-less content, still others record voices overheard. To take just one example, “Time Will Tell If So” opens with another summary statement characteristic of this later work:

A time of comedy sprung
to the eye, a sensational
time of substance and of form,
iridescent existences,
and the same old lowlife. (141)

Here the street-level scene is abstracted, and the poet indulges an outburst of humor. One notices that “Time Will Tell If So” appears after “About This,” which asks, “Where’s my sense of humor?” Certainly not in “About This,” with its chilling vision of war:

[…] This is wartime
bound to be, the social and money value
of human beings in this Republic clear
as can be in air gone pink and translucent
with high-flying clouds and white heat. (143)

War and rumors of war surface throughout the volume, as do the poet’s insights into the economic forces that shape our world, all part of the “social contract” and the “material facts” that now occupy the poet’s imagination. His self, or “I,” is diminished and abstracted — something he had a hard time achieving in the previous volumes. Joseph confronts new challenges as a poet. His “I” becomes an “eye,” surveying the world transparently, and democratically, while also coping with the limits of language, and the possibilities of silence he so willfully ignores in the early poems.

From the vantage of New York City, Joseph moves beyond cities to the subject of America itself, the course of empire, the power of money, “Atomic Age America,” the “phantasmagorical United States” (from “Generation,” a poem after Akhmatova). “Variations on Variations on a Theme” alerts us to Joseph’s new terrain — he is in “Walt Whitman’s country” (155). Although Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams purportedly account for many of Joseph’s ideas on language, he is more genuinely an heir of Whitman, whose democratic ideal in poetry he fundamentally shares. Whitman, after all, eulogizes presidents and battle wounded; he sings the country complete, high and low, with imagery taken from the streets he walked and the people with whom he talked. In this poem, Joseph at his Whitmanian best, begins at the top — a banker murmurs “the socialization of money has become / an abstract force” (154). Meanwhile, a street-dweller insists to anyone who will listen, that she has an advanced degree. A priest shares his thoughts about the survival of the species; a juror screams that a defendant is the devil; the poet overhears “a voice / on the Avenue sensuous enough to touch” (155). All of this while a war has begun, and a horrible image almost earns a smile:

— the eyewitness account the vanquished
appeared as if from a mirage of hot
oily smoke in search of someone
to surrender to — (156)

The poem ends with the arresting idea that “transparency can be painted,” an interesting comment on the emerging “transparent eye.”

Which of course brings us to the poem of the occasion: “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am,” another Whitmanian exercise of the “transparent eye,” here focused on an AIDS victim ranting on the subway, a subject the poet expects we would rather he change. And so he does, drifting into light images of children playing in Battery Park, followed by observations about Williams and Stevens, and how they evolved notions of language during economic depressions. Williams, the physician, feeling the pain of his patients, decides counterintuitively to compress the speech he hears around him. Stevens, for his part, the lawyer dealing in “high-risk losses,” “suspend[s] his grief” and transposes it all into “thoughts, figures, colors” (162). Both poets further the aesthetic agenda set by Joseph in the opening lines quoted at the outset. The poet learns from them, in effect, how to abstract, what he managed to artfully postpone in the early work. The third exemplary poet in this poem, Yvan Goll, provides Joseph’s immediate subject — what Goll calls “Lackawanna Manahatta,” “half made of telephones, half made of tears.” And it is in this city “of pregnant nights” that the poet overhears the man in the bespoke suit pronounce to his much younger date: “from now on it’s every man for himself” (162–63). Everywhere in these splendid poems, greed and chaos threaten the Republic, and the poet retreats not into himself, but into language and images of hard-earned pleasure and happiness, and a hope for truth and transcendence:

[…] Of course I remember
that day — boundless happiness and joy.
The leaves in the park deep, irascible mauve.
The crippled unemployed drawing chalk figures
on the Avenue. Precisely. Where we ought to be. (173–74)

The last poem in the volume, “Occident-Orient Express,” with its worldwide vision, reminds one of those globe-touring poems of Frederick Seidel, a poet about whom Joseph has written admiringly.[4] Moscow, Bonn, Jerusalem, Lebanon, and Las Vegas are just some of the places in Joseph’s ken, but Tokyo stands out as the place where “Madame Lenine’s / grandniece eats air-blown tuna / pungent as caviar” (176). This provokes the poet to ask: “What do I mean?” And the answer is simple: “Language means.” And of course it is all about the “eye” — or, in the words of a taxi driver, “It’s in the eyes, / you have to break the other’s eyes.” In this brave, crazy new world of Joseph’s third volume, “pure abstractions blast through / a fragile mind” (177). The poet is poised for the next movement: the leap “into it.”

In Joseph’s most recent book of poems, the title proclaims the poet’s intent: he wants to immerse himself in the world; he wants to get Into It (the title of his 2005 collection). And he does so with a vengeance. This is a volume of staggering expansiveness. Despite the odd encrypted allusion to his past, or even an occasional “I,” this volume strips down its language and grammar, and expunges all gestures to personal authenticity. The poet here reaches full authority, a walker in the city who can also explain our apocalyptic anxieties in a most distinctly American voice. The voices come from everywhere: the street, the war room, the TV set, poets, and professors. Moreover, though still struggling with language and silence, the poet now knows what he really wants. In poem after poem, he seeks nothing less than truth and beauty, grounded in a profound moral sensibility.

An epigraph from Ovid suggests two important aspects of Into It: Joseph yearns for a voice — a voice, one imagines, different from the self-referential one of earlier work. Also, he needs “to tell the shifting story”:[5] these are poems about transformations and they are a shift from his previous work. The opening poem asks new questions: “[h]ow far to go?”; “And where?” (3). The answer begins passively: “a story took place” with “[c]haracters talking.” He quotes a woman, who is confused by competing “claims to morality” in a time of unparalleled violence (4). But the “I” — who could be anyone, really — now knows “the answer:” “beauty,” as seen, for example, in “the sun ablaze on the harbor.” Joseph, now a more philosophical and abstract poet, sees “[a]t center a moral issue” in “When One Is Feeling One’s Way.” Although he mentions Hillside Avenue, there is no sense of where that is or if it matters where it is. What matters are “two things:” “history and grammar,” “the chemistries of words” that allow for such phrases as “The fault lines / of risk concealed in a monetary landscape” (6). At this point Joseph gets into it in the historical, indeed classical, sense. “[S]ince the time of the Gracchi,” there has been the “same resistance,” resistance against “the arrogation by private interests / of the common wealth, / against the precious and the turgid language / of pseudoerudition.” Another poem suggests the role of language as we delve further “into it,” that some things “can only be said in that language, / opaque, though clear, painted language” (9). But it is also important to remember, with Wittgenstein, that “[t]he limits of my language / are the limits of my world,” as Joseph quotes him in “Why Not Say What Happens?” Even what happened in lower Manhattan on September 11, captured so eloquently in the poem “Unyieldingly Present” — a sequence of images — is “[a]n issue of language now, / isn’t it?” (36).

The cacophony of voices and the most “expert” of lies force an important change in the poet. Once the avenging angel of his Detroit, the poet becomes the recording angel of an era. He notes early on his “transcriptions of the inexpressible” during a time when “[t]he technology to abolish truth” is readily available (10). “Inclined to Speak,” a poem that worries about the role of poetry, looks towards Bertolt Brecht and Paul Celan, and knows that one thing “must be made explicit:” the truth (12). As if answering his earlier inability to abstract, Joseph titles one poem “August Abstract,” and it is, indeed, an abstract poem, despite its location on Twenty-Seventh Street, “not too far from Eleventh Avenue” (22). The poem asks, “the truth? The truth // that came to grieve, was aggrieved, for whom? / Truth determined alchemies of light.” Who are the enemies of truth? Obviously the dictators and warlords of history, and it is only that kind of “concentration of power on earth” that can strip truth “of its power” (24, 25).

The voices heard throughout the book are many. In “News Back Even Further Than That,” we hear from an air war commander, a president, a prophet, a woman made angry by war, and Ezra Pound — a typical Joseph mix. And that transparent eye begins to zoom in too close to the horrific reality:

[…] I’ve become
too clear-sighted — the mechanics of power
are too transparent. (41)

In his loose translation of Ovid, Joseph smartly makes the classical contemporary and vice versa. What is the difference between ancient and modern warlords after all? Both understand that “[p]ower knows of no argument other than power” (51). The poet responds: “Ugliness, when truly touched, the shock of beauty / is what turns the game around.” Therein lies the poet’s wisdom — a wisdom shared with no less than John Keats in the famous closing lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819): “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” In any case, the poet speaking at the end of the poem could be any poet, from Ovid to Keats to Celan to Joseph, any poet in other words who feels, as Joseph writes in Into It, “bound by transcendent necessity” (52).

In an earlier poem in Into It, Joseph hears an obscure Sam Cooke tune on the jukebox, and the lyrics are a perfect echo of the Whitmanian voice of Joseph’s poetry: “even my voice belongs to you, / I use my voice to sing, to sing, to sing to you” (31). The final long poem of the book (“The Game Changed”) completes the circle. The poet is in Manhattan, attuned again to an interesting mix of voices: a lawyer, Osip Mandelstam, the Maronite Patriarch, a professor of international relations, a cab driver, a member of the Commission on Missing Persons, and a proverbial beggar. The lawyer, by the way, fully embodies Joseph’s sense of “chemically pure evil;” his very “presence” is “a gross and slippery / lie” (63). He mocks the poet’s opening observation that “the phantasmic imperium is set in a chronic state / of hypnotic fixity.” But the lawyer’s scorn does not matter, for the poet’s “melancholy is ancient” (64). And his intent is clear: “to make a large, serious / portrait of my time.” The poet knows that “the game” has changed. “Neither impenetrable opacity / nor absolute transparency” will explain it all (65). His mind is on fire, “possessed by what is desired.” And what is that? “Immanence — / an immanence and a happiness.” Far from the hyper-reality of the early poems, Into It ends in an abstract dream and sings a final hymn to the silence (“Once Again”).

In his recent book on contemporary poetry, The Modern Element, Adam Kirsch distinguishes the best poets of our time as risk-takers who exhibit a particular kind of heroism; such a poet aspires to be “civilization’s pioneer, undergoing earlier and more intensely the spiritual experiences his contemporaries have not yet learned to articulate.”[6] Furthermore, the poet achieves this with “daring honesty, subtle self-knowledge, an intimate […] concern with history, and a determination to make language serve as the most accurate possible instrument of communication.” Joseph evolves over the course of his four books into just such a poet. While the majority of contemporary poets, in Kirsch’s view, remain mired in their quest for authenticity, or retreat into impenetrable word play, Joseph manages to carve out a unique place for his work. Like Whitman and Seidel, he embraces the world around him in all its complexities and with a profound sense of history. He values the truth above all and no longer has to shout out his self-knowledge. His concern with language, his own and the voices he hears, are what make him, among other things, a truly American poet, and one whose work will surely last.




1.  Lawrence Joseph, “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am,” in Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems, 1973–1993 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 160. Hereafter cited in text.

2.  Joseph’s poem “I Was Appointed the Poet of Heaven” also appears as an untitled prologue poem in Shouting at No One (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983).

3.  See, for example, “He Is Khatchig Gaboudabian,” in Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos, 36.

4.  See Joseph, “War of the Worlds,” review of Poems 1959–1979 and These Days, by Frederick Seidel, The Nation, Sept. 24, 1990, 314.

5.  Joseph, Into It (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005), 3. Hereafter cited in text.

6.  Adam Kirsch, The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008), 11.

'Something that stutters sincerely'

Contemporary poetry and the aesthetics of failure

[T]o be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail … all that is required now … is to make of this submission, this admission, this fidelity to failure, a new occasion, a new term of relation, and of the act which, unable to act, obliged to act, he makes, an expressive act, even if only of itself, of its impossibility, of its obligation. — Samuel Beckett, Three Dialogues[1]


In a recent essay, Stephen Burt notes a “miniboom” of poets writing sestinas, and claims they are drawn to the strict form as a way “to lament their diminished or foreclosed hopes for their art.”[2] This form in particular is attractive, Burt writes, because its repetitive structure (the same six words appear at the ends of the lines in each of the poem’s six-line stanzas) enables descriptions of “sorts of futility,” “the uselessness of verbal craft” or “art’s failure to find further use.”[3]

In discussing work that expresses its own malfunction, Burt makes an argument for a distinctive contemporary poetics of failure. While he claims that the form is ubiquitous because it allows poets to privilege craft over the failure of content,[4] I will be arguing here that the significance of this poetics of failure is not so much tied to the technical challenges involved in forms like the sestina, but rather arises out of a more pressing concern with the authoritative claims of the previous generation’s aesthetic commitments. This concern seems to produce texts that respond not only to a sense of the exhaustion of innovative techniques (and therefore advocate a kind of renewal of traditional expressive aesthetics), but also which respond to the increasing sense that artistic innovation is culturally ineffectual anyway.

Thus, Christian Bök in “Writing and Failure” discusses what sorts of possibilities are left for innovative poets presented with what he calls the “intensified irrelevance of poetry as a cultural activity.”[5] He seems to pinpoint various sources of this fading interest — critical skepticism, readerly neglect — amounting to a sense of “doomed labour.” Bök’s response to this sense of failure is to offer a suggestion for how the “doomed labour” of the avant-garde might be redeemed: “If we want to succeed in the future, we may need to … write poems more addictive than any neurotoxin, more seductive than any centerfold, and more infective than any retrovirus;”[6] a poetry, in other words, that attracts and holds readers through its viral character, appropriating the methods of mass-culture markets. Similarly interested in the social situation of the avant-garde, Christopher Nealon argues in “Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism” that “post-Language” poets are faced with the unique difficulty of writing “from within the presumption of totality.”[7] The avant-garde failures that for Bök are incentives to a newly viable poetics operating within the terms of their failure become for Nealon a world of “damaged materiality,” which in turn produces a poetics of socio-economic aporia. This work “recognizes that even its awareness of the obsolescence of its materials, as a literary strategy, is obsolete,”[8] and as a result exists in a suspended state, waiting for (rather than, as Bök seems to do, announcing) a messianic art-to-come. I will return to all of these problems later in this paper, but I want to stress that while clearly interested in distinctive features of contemporary poetry — Burt with particular formal choices, Bök with the avant-garde as such, and Nealon with the latter’s relationship to political and economic realities — what all of these views share is an acknowledgment of atrophied artistic possibility and a concern for what poets can (or can’t) do with this critical sense of impasse.

This is not to say that aesthetic failure or discussions of its prevalence are in any way unique to our moment. The limits of literature and the struggle to overcome such limits has often been an artistic preoccupation, particularly in modernist and postmodernist texts, and no doubt will rise again.[9] But what distinguishes this recent interest in poetic failure from earlier iterations is the source of its discontent: these contemporary poets are grappling with the failure and exhaustion of the postmodern itself, and the postmodern object of resistance is, in the case of poetry at the turn of the century, Language writing.

What this paper will focus on is one subset in the practices of aesthetic failure as a response to the Language movement, what I will characterize as the effort to achieve a “sincere,” “naïve” or “childlike” quality in poetry, resulting in what has been called in certain contexts “The New Sincerity.”[10] In particular I’m interested in how the work of poets like Matt Hart, Tao Lin, Dorothea Lasky, and Nate Pritts, among others, is engaged with notions of risk and failure, and I want to suggest that by adopting “failure” as an aesthetic stance, they are claiming a kind of paradoxical literary authority. This kind of authority thrives on testing the grounds of sentimental or sincere modes of discourse, and serves to reveal a more widespread sense of anxiety younger innovative poets are experiencing with regard to literary tradition and aesthetic possibility. My analysis is concentrated on two particular writers, Matt Hart and Tao Lin, because they have (in different ways) provoked considerable commentary concerning issues of risk and failure, irony and sentimentality, and the idea of literary authority on the whole; by extension, Lin and Hart seem to be testing the limits of what counts as poetic practice through their testing of these categorical frameworks. I hope to show that this current crop of poems that flourish in their own “fidelity to failure”[11] are actually engaged in finding ways to resist authority by appearing to claim it by other means; that the gestures many see as “sincere” or “childlike” are in fact efforts to assume authority by seeming to reject it — a simultaneous abandonment and seizure of authority. Put differently, the idea of being comfortable with one’s own failure is a way to assert power; it is a way of achieving success[12] through purposefully appropriating its opposite.


Is it true we’re in a struggle with language?
Because that’s not at all what I expected. I was hoping
for great white sharks or parking tickets, bad seats

at the symphony. — Matt Hart, “Pet Cricket”[13]

In the work of Hart, Lin, and others, I will argue, this deliberate embrace of failure is worked out through an explicit departure from an allegedly exhausted aesthetic and a movement toward a renewed emphasis on emotion. This ends up looking like a testing of the grounds between, on the one hand, the sincere or expressive, and on the other, the ironic or unemotional. The form this relation takes, though, depends upon thinking about postmodernism as representative of modes of discourse which thrive on techniques like parody and pastiche, on aesthetic distance and heightened self-consciousness through a variety of methods (recycling of old forms, appropriation, collage).[14] Though postmodern art is obviously far more complex and diverse than the above characterization acknowledges, poets like Hart and Lin seem to see postmodernist poetics as having reached its limit, and are now in a position to critique its methods through (ironically) oscillating between an embrace and rejection of such techniques. But what specifically are these poets repudiating? What about the postmodern avant-garde is problematic to them?

Jason Morris is representative of this sense when he notes that a recent upsurge in “sincere” tones and earnest depictions of emotionality “seem to be immanent critiques of irony,” and that “contemporary poetry has so fully digested irony that it’s ready and willing to discuss it openly — ‘sincerely’ — in plain view.”[15] The press material for Matt Hart’s Who’s Who Vivid (Slope Editions, 2005) reads “Matt Hart brings the so-called ‘New Sincerity’ to the forefront of American poetry with his stunningly kinetic debut collection. Stripped of the pretense, hyper-irony and posturing of much of the writing of his peers, Hart’s is a heartfelt poetry that alternately celebrates and berates human existence.” And in reviews of Tao Lin’s you are a little bit happier than i am (Action Books, 2006) the explicit rejections of a postmodern aesthetic are replaced with claims about tone: “that sort of so-insincere-it’s-sincere tone is his trademark. The irony approaches poignancy, but only because its purposes are so transparent,”[16] but what ultimately seems to be heard is “a real person underneath it all.”[17] What looks like a critique of irony, then, actually appears to be a way to embrace it on new terms; it is an employment of irony in the service of making more visible the “human” or expressive elements of art. In the case of Lin, moreover, we can see that the logic that connects sincerity, unpretentiousness and a critique of irony with a revelation of the “human” is also bound up with a certain “transparency” of “purpose” or intent.

While the above statements all seem to involve a fluctuation between embracing and refusing irony (and by extension, a postmodern aesthetic), it’s still hard to tell what exactly that aesthetic is and why it’s being critiqued. The poets themselves are similarly vague on this point. Hart declares that “poetry needs to utilize the experimental muscle of the last century to move beyond mere experimentation and instead start amounting to something — something fully beautifully human,”[18] and Lin, when asked in an interview about his writing technique, answered “I don’t want to make people feel stupid when they read my writing … This includes not making the audience feel bored or think I’m smarter than them or something.”[19] These writers seem to be rejecting a poetry which is either too committed to its own experimentation to enable anything “beautifully human” or whose difficulties end up alienating its readers.

As I have already suggested, the poetry that corresponds most closely to these experimental commitments (and for that matter, whose reception often observed these alienating effects) is the Language writing of the preceding generation. I don’t mean to suggest here that the Language movement is the only object of resistance for these poets, nor do I mean to exclude other literary dominants that have clearly been resources for these writers; I simply intend to focus on Language writing as the primary force against which much of this poetry is aimed because of its overwhelming presence in ’70s and ’80s avant-garde practice. One of the more recognizable components of the Language aesthetic is its reconsideration of the speakerly elements of poetry, often involving a direct critique of “voice” or the so-called “lyric subject.”[20] Such a poem is interested in a sense of unity and closure that Language writing sees as limiting and authoritarian — a “closed” rather than an “open” text, to recall Lyn Hejinian’s well-known essay.[21] And the desire to “open” the poem translates into a desire to “open” the possibilities of speaking beyond anything like a persona or, perhaps more important for our purposes, a “self.”[22]

Younger “sincerist” poets like Hart and Lin seem to have fully digested the rhetoric of Language writing and in so doing, are free to select those aesthetic techniques which they consider useful and dismiss the rest. In other words, they tend to view the movement as a set of literary strategies from which they are able to draw, without needing to identify themselves with its ideology. The notion of art as a collective, and in some cases, a redemptive project, is a concern that bridges the gap between the two generations, as these younger poets’ practice seems to grow out of the collaborative nature of cooperative presses and a thriving online publishing scene.[23] They continue to share with their predecessors a desire to undermine traditional understandings of power relationships between writers and readers, and I hope to show that these writers have a similar relationship to dominant forms of power. But the differences between the two produce interesting problems. The fundamental resistance lies in ideas of personal literary authority and, by extension, the place and presence of the “I” in poetic expression. Indeed, Hart and Lin, while borrowing from the bag of tricks that Language writing makes use of, also continue to rely heavily on lyric gestures. But as Language writing has transformed from an icon of the avant-garde to a more institutional presence in American poetry, these “sincerist” poets purposefully have constructed the object of their rebellion by adhering to an emotional rather than a theoretical core, while still making use of innovative practices.

Matt Hart touches on this strategy when discussing what he sees as one of the most vibrant aspects of this new aesthetic: “What’s exciting to me … is that there’s a ton of great work being made which is not only weaving together avant-garde techniques with more traditional, human aims, but which is also … walking that fine line between sentiment and sentimentality — which in this day and age is where the risk really is.”[24] The reason this seems risky for Hart is because of its deliberate adaptation of experimental forms to a content (“traditional, human” sentiment) that seemed denied on the earlier model.


A saving grace and a disturbing handicap it is to speak from the top of your head, putting all trust in yourself as a truthsayer. I write from the top of my head and to write so means to write honestly, but it almost means to write clumsily. No poet likes to be clumsy. But I decided to heck with it, as long as it allows me to speak the truth. — Gregory Corso, “Some of My Beginning … And What I Feel Right Now”[25]

The idea of risk in the form of sentiment — moreover, the idea of risk as such — is a significant component of Matt Hart’s project, one that serves as a vital and generative tool. In a blog post he outlines a definition of the poem as “a series of resistant gestures — not only to what the poet knows and is comfortable with, regarding both poetry and the world, but also to the poet him/herself — and furthermore to ordinary language.”[26] Hart’s aesthetic, therefore (particularly in his first book, Who’s Who Vivid), is one that pulls against epistemologies: that resists knowledge of “poetry and the world,” of language, and of oneself. He characterizes this resistance as “a sort of active, deliberate recklessness” in the face of the known, and this recklessness seems to occur with respect to technique:

In my process, I feel like one of those little wind-up godzillas that bobbles mechanically across the floor, shooting sparks out of its mouth. Then I throw everything into the blender and see what it tastes like … The trick, of course, is to come up with something that amounts to more than the sum of its parts — something more than experiment (procedure), technique (craft), and all that one knows and can articulate about poetry.[27]

What’s striking about Hart’s articulation of his process is its reliance on mechanical metaphors: it is an “engine,” a situation in which he’s first a windup toy shooting sparks, then a blender pureeing whatever is produced (or perhaps, we should say, already destroyed). The goal, however, seems to be a poetry that’s more than just a result of a mechanical process, and whose success lies in one’s inability to account for how it was produced: “marvelous poetry always contains something inexplicable — an impossible ingredient that’s there in spite of the person who wrote it.” While Hart appears to be resisting the idea that a successful poem is a result of organic development, he’s also resisting the idea that a successful poem can ever emerge only through experimentation and technique.

This aesthetic stance thrives on the tension between knowing and not knowing what one is doing or why (yet still proceeding), between resisting and expressing the self (which I’ll discuss later on), and between real or inauthentic displays of emotion, or between the sincere and the ironic:

I often get the feeling in talking with people of my own generation that responding to something imaginatively, creatively, expressively — in art or life — isn’t allowed, because the perception (and theory) is that it isn’t any longer possible — that a real emotional reaction always looks fake, but emotional displays (which are fake) seem real — or at least they’re the only sort of emotional content that anyone will buy … Thus, one can only hope to stutter sincerely — send oneself out as a pulse, a broken signal, a set of squawks and beeps in hopes of making real contact and having real communion with others in the world.[28]

The blurring of the lines between authentic emotional expression and its opposite, Hart seems to claim, makes the production of the former much more difficult, and diminished the possibility of readers taking such expression seriously. The only alternative for Hart, then, is to combine sincere emotion with procedural or mechanical form (self as a “set of squawks and beeps”); that is, to resist both sentimental divulgence and unemotional formalism by synthesizing the two.

The energy that’s produced through the act of artistic resistance produces a poetry that is volatile, ebullient, and “neo-Romantic” to some, earning him the label of a “New Sincerist” (in reference to a short-lived but intense flurry around a mock manifesto published online by Andrew Mister in 2005). But Hart’s relationship to this phenomenon is a tricky one. Hart seems ambivalent about his involvement with this “group” — at times adopting its implications (as in “An Accidental Appreciation: A Few Pieces on Gregory Corso with a Nod Toward a New Sincerity”) and at times doubting its existence (“New Sincerity … uh? I have no idea what the Old Sincerity was …”[29]), and his work reveals the tensions that emerge from writing within a synthesized aesthetic (“weaving together avant-garde techniques with more traditional, human aims”). This synthesis is evident in “Revolutions per Minute”:

Now, with dust in my hair, collecting marbles,
I see with renewed interest the devastating past
and the erasable future. O dust pan, O floor mop!
Cat toy. Ted Berrigan. Floating casino. I may
putter my life away, but at least these genuine antics
are genuine antics: antlers, wall sockets,
a wire brush tail — Who do I think I am?[30]

Here the reader is presented with a coherent voice and a set of objects set in temporal and spatial disarray. The poem gives the impression of a self in a space full of unrelated material, the junk or detritus of accumulated culture (Ted Berrigan, casinos, electric sockets). Surrounded by such a disparate array of stuff, the speaker seems to be at a loss for how to make it all cohere, and senses the possibility of it not cohering, of failing to make his subject legible. The effort is rewarded, however, because “these genuine antics / are genuine antics,” even though the speaker then questions his own voice and his ability or right to assemble them (“Who do I think I am?”). The poem continues in this vein, presenting the reader with more seemingly random material and then asking her to consider both its significance and the authority of the speaker, whose voice seems to shift in tone through the variety of objects he absorbs:

               The blur I feel in the face
of all our greatest tragedies is merely the punch-
line to a beautiful joke: paintcan, sour apple, Zurich.
Tristan Tzara Tristan Tzara Tristan Tzara. Welcome
to America, may I take your order. I don’t want to
destroy anything, not even a paperclip.

In the face of the face of the new-fangled machinery
my Star-Spangled Fruit Loops wear everybody out.
I’ll substitute your everything for my colossal nothing.
I’ll make my revolutions your problem.[31]

This kaleidoscopic shifting of focus — from a paint can to Zurich to Tristan Tzara — seems to enact Hart’s idea of the poem as a blendered thing, as the result of throwing unrelated objects together in the hopes that they cohere. But the speaker admits personal and social exhaustion with his own performance (“my Star-Spangled Fruit Loops wear everybody out”), and admits, too, that it all amounts to a “colossal nothing” or a failure to write anything of consequence; the poem’s process has taken us through a cyclone of material only to end up with nothing that matters. In “Revolutions per Minute” Hart essentially acts out his own failed aesthetic by responding to the “everything” of American poetics with his own inability to contribute an artifact of value.

This trajectory is one that works to characterize Who’s Who Vivid as a whole[32]. Hart’s poems continually discuss their own failure, and the book is littered with apologies for its own broken or damaged goods: it is a collection in which objects shatter or are lost, people disappear, deadlines are missed and buses run late. These seemingly minor or temporary crises ultimately add up to “the grand catastrophe of self” in which the voice of the poem risks disintegration at any moment. As a musician as well as a poet, Hart likens poetry to the nature of punk rock and states “I want [my poems] to have some similar characteristics and effects — the noise, the energy, the sense that everything could fall apart at any second. Sloppiness. Elasticity. Negation.”[33] The energy of the poems, like Hart’s understanding of punk, seems to come from the possibility of not succeeding, from the “annihilation/exhilaration” of artistic process, and the charged energy linking coherence with collapse.

Negotiating this space becomes for Hart a question of negotiating both the limits of emotional expression as well as the experimental processes by which authentic emotion is able to be communicated. To turn back to Hart’s statement that “there’s a ton of great work being made which is not only weaving together avant-garde techniques with more traditional, human aims, but which is also … walking that fine line between sentiment and sentimentality — which in this day and age is where the risk really is,”[34] we can see that there’s a friction, too, between the avant-garde as resource and the avant-garde as obstruction. In thinking about the avant-garde as a poetic resource, Hart seems to rely on particular experimental techniques in order to move him toward emotional possibility, which is where the methods of the avant-garde seem to fail and where more traditional “human aims” take over. As seen in these lines from the end of “Only a Transmitter,” the voice divulges its interiority to the reader, unsure as to what counts as real and what doesn’t, and by extension, unsure of the viability of his own poetic authority:

When I tell you I’m only a transmitter, when I sound off
my beeping life as both shepherd and keeper of the jar

of my mind, all I’m really saying is I don’t have anyone
to talk to, and when I do, I confuse them with chatter

and noise. Isn’t there a manual I can read for my life,
a drippy faucet I can fix or an appetizer to invent? …

I know nothing at all of the fortune
I crave, how to tell the truth plainly from finish to start.

My style is no style. My form a pigsty.
Just look how far I haven’t come in the dark.[35]

This poem seems to be about, on the one hand, explaining its methods of communication (“I’m only a transmitter”), and on the other, about the futility of poetic practice. The helplessness expressed here is aesthetic (“My style is no style. My form a pigsty”) and the result of two conditions: not having a readership (“I don’t have anyone / to talk to”), and having one but not knowing who they are (“I confuse them with chatter and noise”). All the elements of a successful poem have failed this speaker; he has no material, no message, and no receiver.

But who is this self-deprecating speaker? How are we to see the “I” of these poems, particularly when thinking about them as challenging an experimental aesthetic that rejects the stability of the speaking subject? In “Remodeling,” Hart writes

Hey you, reader, I’m no speaker.
I’m the guy writing this, the guy who just wrote this,
a guy who has been M*** H***, thirty years old.
It’s July 18, 2004. He fights with my wife, but I’m okay.[36]

These lines seem to indicate to the reader that we should take the voice to be Matt Hart’s. However, he seems to immediately pull back from this assertion, refusing to commit fully to his own authority by replacing the letters of his name with asterisks, then deliberately distancing the speaker from that identity by rendering it as a third-person “he” in the last line.

This tenuous relationship to one’s own poetic identity is a widespread preoccupation for younger contemporary writers, as Tony Hoagland argues in “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” He claims that younger poets who have absorbed the aesthetic of Language writing are now writing poems of “lyric-associative fragment” that involve “greater self-consciousness and emotional removal.” He defines the “Poem of Our Moment” — by which he means the poetry that is currently being written by younger “post-avant”[37] writers and that is the object of resistance for poets like Hart and Lin — as

fast-moving and declarative, wobbling on the balance beam between associative and dissociative, somewhat absurdist, and, indeed, cerebral. Much talent and skill are evident in its making, in its pacing and management of gaps, the hints and sound bites which keep the reader reaching forward for the lynchpin of coherence … it seems capable of incorporating anything … yet all this motley data — i.e. experience — doesn’t add up to a story. Even as the poem implies a world without sequence, the poem itself has no consequence, no center of gravity, no body, no assertion of emotional value.[38]

A poem without emotional weight (“cerebral”), and thus without consequence, is what poets like Hart, Lin, and others are resisting; they are deliberately rejecting the “Poem of Our Moment” by testing the limits of sentimentality while still adhering to experimental techniques. Hart’s Who’s Who Vivid, as I have begun to show, exemplifies this friction between the avant-garde and the lyric tradition it sought to criticize. Where he is lyric (subjective voice, emotional expression), he tends to destabilize himself by either refusing subjective identification or by turning authentic expression into inauthentic sentimentality. Where he borrows from the preceding generation’s avant-garde (procedural techniques, alphabet exercises, fragmented syntax, blurring of the “poetic” with other discourses, collage-like assemblages), he tends to produce poems that feel like linguistic exercises with little relevance beyond their own boundaries. The success of Who’s Who Vivid, then, rests on Hart’s ability to balance these two impulses through continually undermining each.


The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential. — Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

i have moved beyond meaninglessness, far beyond meaninglessness
to something positive, life-affirming, and potentially best-selling — Tao Lin, “eleven page poem, page three”

I have tried to show that Hart’s poetry seems to rely on a formula for success that involves the delicate give and take of experimental technique on the one hand, and assertion of emotional value on the other. This balance is difficult to maintain, particularly when accounting for the complex relationship Hart has to his own poetic authority and the poetic tradition on the whole. What I hope to demonstrate here is that Tao Lin — though similarly “sincere” in tone, and like Hart, troubled with the notion of literary authority — seems to prohibit any sort of recognizable model for success, and that his poetry instead gains power through a more radical sense of “annihilation” than Hart or other “sincerist” poets manage.[39]

With his two collections of poetry, you are a little bit happier than i am (Action Books, 2006) and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Melville House, 2008), Lin has provoked violently oppositional responses from his readers. John Gallaher argues that you are a little bit happier than i am “almost means something, then demands that it means nothing,” but that the feeling of an actual person, “wanting and not wanting to be there, who couldn’t care less and is craving for attention” is what makes it “such an interesting book.”[40] To offer even greater praise, K. Silem Mohammad claims that it “may be the greatest book of poems ever written.”[41]

Simon DeDeo, by contrast, begins his review of one of Lin’s poems by applauding certain aspects of what he sees as a new aesthetic: “a raw, associative kind of work that is struggling to lift poetry up out of … pretentious italics and historical references and put it back into some kind of living, breathing form,” but complains that this comes at a price: the tone that emerges is one that embraces a “macho, masculine, fuck you, attitude that is not only posturing, and not only aware of its posturing, but also smugly aware of its awareness of its posturing. In other words, it fails.”[42]

So what is it about Lin’s writing that provokes such extreme praise and vitriol? The feature that seems to draw attention in reviews is the tone expressed in the work. One reader claims that “Lin favors flat and accurate articulation of feeling over language play” which gives the poems “a tone of totalitarian sincerity.”[43] This style, called by some “The New Childishness,”[44] has garnered attention for being at the forefront of a manner of writing that valorizes innocence or naiveté. Elisa Gabbert, for example, identifies this mode as “a ‘cultivated artful artlessness’ in tone employed by artists like Tao Lin, Joanna Newsom and Dorothea Lasky … this childish tone can be employed to great dramatic effect — creating ‘insta-intensity’ … [and] tends to inspire love-it-or-hate-it reactions in people.”[45] If Hart sees his poetry as a form of risk-taking, Gabbert argues that this mode might actually be a means of defending oneself against critique: “I’ve sung the praises of Lin and Lasky here before … [but] there’s something preemptively defensive about this Innocent mode — as though by announcing upfront one’s vulnerability, one could become invulnerable. As in, Don’t hurt me, I’m just a kid.” This characterization seems to recall DeDeo’s complaint about Lin’s allegedly “masculine, fuck you, attitude” as well. What this ends up looking like (although the above statements are all responses to the work rather than examples of it) is an aesthetics of posture and stylization rather than authentic emotional expression; indeed, the antithesis of sincerity.

But if the responses to Lin’s work are, more often than not, responses to a certain tone, it is important to understand what sort of tone this is, why it is being mobilized, and to what end. In a 2007 blog post, Conn O’Brien describes a type of writing that corresponds closely to what seems to be happening in Lin’s poetry:

[T]here are two main styles in which a person can write — one is overtly emotional, while the other is neutral (or “dead-pan”). Here is the difference between the two styles: if an emotional writer wants to write about a sunset, they will say something like, “Conn’s face was bathed in the deep, dynamically-shifting fiery glow of the life-giving, untouchable solar body, as, all the while, the northern wind caressed his skin.” [B]ut a neutral writer would say something more like, “the earth rotated so that the sun was no longer visible to Conn.” The difference is that the emotional writer continuously makes moral and qualitative judgments about what they are describing, whereas the neutral writer only expresses what actually happens, without including their own judgments.[46]

According to O’Brien, neutral literature or “dead-pan” writing is committed to representing the objective actuality of event rather than the subjective interpretation of that event. The essential difference between the two for O’Brien is a difference of value judgments: the neutral writer refrains from imposing his or her interpretation of value on the object or event that is being expressed, which in itself could be considered an act of assigning value to one’s own practice.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy defines itself by adopting what appears to be this neutral tone. However, Lin tests the limits of this method by deploying it to describe what could only be construed as emotional events, as in “eleven page poem, page one”:

i looked away from the computer with a slight feeling
of out-of-control anger; i saw you wearing a coffee-colored star-suit
there was a barely perceptible feeling on my face
that i was being crushed by the shit of the world
then i saw beyond the window to the tree, the house, and the street
the house and the street made mysterious binary noises
that negatively affected the tree’s immense happiness
i observed this neutrally, without falling out of my chair[47]

Rather than sketching a situation in which a speaker feels “out-of-control anger” and then responds to this anger aesthetically (i.e., writing it out), Lin chooses to sever the connection between the emotion and the supposed response to that emotion: the speaker considers his anger, wears the feeling externally (on his face), and though he views his surroundings as taking part in a larger scheme of oppositional forces (“binary noises”, happiness, anger), he observes — rather than reacts to — these events “neutrally,” without allowing them to affect either his demeanor or his account of them. This neutral tone is similarly employed in “fourteen of twenty-four”:

‘i don’t know anything’ is an irrational
and melodramatic pattern of thought
most emotional and behavioral responses are learned
while answering emails, according to empirical science
that was the day my philosophy
created between us ‘an enormous distance’
which i think we both knew was uncrossable
but looking at it was therapeutic
so i put quotation marks around it
in our time of suffering my poetry will remain calm
and indifferent — something to look forward to

The speaker in both of these poems acknowledges his emotions (“out-of-control anger,” “suffering”) but chooses not to express them. Rather, he expresses the event of not responding to them, of choosing neutrality through, for example, direct observation of oneself (“without falling out of my chair”) or by deliberately calling attention to language usage (“i put quotation marks around it”). Moreover, the “voice” is flattened out in both of these instances, in part as a result of avoiding punctuation. Rather than helping the reader interpret “intention” or mood by offering linguistic signposts — exclamation points, question marks, periods to indicate syntax breaks — Lin chooses to leave off these directives.

This technique of omission is one of the ways in which Lin repeatedly presents us with overtly emotional scenes but refuses to present us with his feelings about these emotions; it is a paradoxical formulation of extreme emotional states expressed neutrally. His project seems to be to reveal himself to the reader, to show the reader the materials that make up his world and the thoughts that create that world, but to do so in such a way as to fail to dictate how the reader should feel about or respond to that world. His aesthetic question is how to render emotional extremes with the least possible amount of emotion.[48]

In an interview with 3 A.M. Magazine, Lin discusses this technique. He chooses, even here, to distance himself from his own claims: “The tone I currently am writing in … is ‘neutral’ I think. I am writing it like a journalism thing maybe … ‘severely detached.’”[49] And in the notes to you are a little bit happier than i am he writes:

you are a little bit happier than i am is I think a non-fiction poetry book. The narrator is myself, “Tao Lin.” I wrote most of the book to console myself against unrequited feelings, loneliness, meaninglessness, death, limited-time, and the arbitrary nature of existence, maybe.[50]

There are two separate techniques being used here to, on the one hand, distance Lin from himself as the agent of actions and feelings depicted in the poem, and on the other, maintain a neutral tone in their depiction. The first technique involves the overt use of scare quotes, which calls attention to words and phrases as linguistic units or ideas rather than as given facts (“The tone I currently am writing in is ‘neutral’; ‘severely detached’”). He does this with his own name (“Tao Lin”), as if he is refusing to own the poem or commit himself absolutely to the role of author. By creating aesthetic distance of this kind, Lin avoids having to fully bind himself to any claim he might make in his poetry. These gestures are ultimately protective in nature, and recall Gabbert and Božičevic’s notions of “The New Childishness” as a way of defending oneself against critique (“Don’t hurt me, I’m just a kid”). This resistance of one’s own authority also recalls Matt Hart’s similar refusal to fully identify with the role of the author — or at least the grammatical indices of that author (the “I”) — and reveals an ambivalence in both writers toward the idea of asserting any kind of absolute power over creative work in the face of what’s perceived as diminishing aesthetic resources.

The second technique involves the constant qualification of statements. He tends to make assertions (“I wrote … to console myself against unrequited feelings”), then undercut them by qualifying their accuracy (“maybe”), thereby destabilizing his own authority. This is evident in “that night with the green sky”:

it was snowing and you were kind of beautiful
we were in the city and every time i looked up
someone was leaning out a window, staring at me
i could tell you liked me a lot or maybe even loved me
but you kept walking at this strange speed
you kept going in angles and it confused me

and that hurts
why did you want me gone?
that hurts
i don’t know
some things can’t be explained, i guess
the sky, for example, was green that night[51]

This poem refuses to commit absolutely to any particular claim. The speaker thinks the auditor is “kind of” beautiful, thinks “maybe” she loves him or that “maybe” she was trying to ditch him, then moves into a set of repetitive questions (“why?”) and ends inconclusively, almost helplessly (“some things can’t be explained, i guess”). This qualifying diction is characteristic of the book as a whole, and as these vague phrases accumulate, we begin to form an idea about what sort of a project this is: Lin oscillates between assertions of truth and undercutting or negating those truths. Ultimately, this avoids absolute identification with any statement and widens the gap between the speaking subject and his material.

The fluctuation between making and dissolving propositions, as well as using authorial diminishment as an aesthetic technique, are qualities that Hart and Lin share, and ultimately reveal a defensive stance (Hart’s rhetoric of “risk” notwithstanding) toward literary authority in their simultaneous refutation of and attraction to authority and knowledge. However, Lin pushes this skepticism to its limits by rejecting his own power through particularly deflating linguistic choices. His commitment to both flat neutrality and emotional expression causes a rupture in the text, and the strain between the detached and the expressive is a defining feature of his work. When Lin’s content — failure of communication, of relationships, of social and commercial recognition — is coupled with his clashing techniques, the result is a body of poems that refuse to perform “successfully.” They intentionally resist notions of what counts as “serious” writing,[52] asking us to consider what the official criterion of success is, or should be.

Lin’s work is also stripped of formal self-consciousness. Many poems leave in traces of the revision process, which turns the poems, in some cases, into the unselfconscious divulgence of the labor of poetry. At times, Lin’s revision process is visible:

i am really happy and this is the truth
do you believe me
you don’t believe me
but i am
it is 1:10 a.m. and i am alone in my brother’s studio apartment and i just grinned
(it is 2:24 a.m. inside of this parenthetical and i am doing revisions on this poem and i am not that happy anymore but thirsty; but not thirsty enough to go and drink something)[53]

The act of reading this poem seems almost voyeuristic. We are made privy to the parts of writing and revision that typically occur outside of the space of the “finished product”; but rather than erasing the evidence of process, Lin has chosen to incorporate it within the product, which gives this poem a temporal aspect beyond merely the act of reading. It is difficult to tell, though, whether or not this can be considered an act of choosing what to include or simply an act of avoiding having to make a choice.

While one could think about the above practice as essentially authentic (in that it reveals a commitment to exposing the messiness of craft), some elements of Lin’s aesthetic produce critiques focused on his poems’ lack of authenticity. In a scathing review of the poem “i’m tired,”[54] Simon DeDeo claims that by using simple syntactical constructions and childlike diction, Lin is refusing to “directly confront the self: the articulate self.”[55] But rather than imagining that the employment of such techniques produces a poetry of greater authenticity through embracing a regressive or childlike tone, DeDeo thinks it creates a poetry that’s ultimately insincere:

Tao’s verbal device — apart from the occasional apostrophe to the Pulitzer Prize or a snippet of telegraph-speak — is to ventriloquise the spoiled child, cursing and wailing alternately. It’s a ridiculous performance … there is nothing here but raw, embarrassing id — and, again, the ego looking down at it. And, again, the ego taking sideways glances at itself looking down.

Where some readers see Lin’s unselfconscious divulgences of interiority as signposts for an actual speaker, DeDeo sees the regression into childlike language as ultimately disingenuous.

If we return to Christian Bök’s “Writing and Failure,” we can see this sort of rejection as an instance of what the essay forecasts:

[T]he avant-garde relies upon subversive strategies of asyntactic, if not asemantic, expression … [and] often seems to resemble the nonsense produced by either the unskilled or the illiterate, camouflaging itself in the lousy style of the ingénue in order to showcase the creative potential of a technique that less liberal critics might otherwise dismiss as a fatal error. … Even though such critics refuse to see the merits of, what must appear to be, a completely capricious act of wilfull [sic] failure, the avant-garde nevertheless insists that, by abusing the most fashionable instruments of great style, the poet can in turn highlight a new set of virtuosities that have, so far, gone unconsidered, if not unappreciated. … What constitutes the precondition for failure in one style now becomes the prerequisite for success in another style. What we define as a mistake to be avoided is almost always the foresworn direction for some other more revolutionary investigation.[56]

What is at stake here is a longstanding question — how we can determine whether something is art or not — and more specifically, whether “bad” techniques can serve to revitalize stagnant art. These are questions that have been asked at least since the twentieth century was confronted with Dada and surrealism and later, conceptual art.[57]

The idea that the avant-garde is responsible for pushing the limits of what can be considered art comes with a risk, when the question of definition — what makes something art? — seems necessary to ask of those objects that clearly do not seem to be performing in the ways we think they should perform. What is notable about this particular situation involving Hart, Lin and others is both its mode (childish discourse, sentimentality) and its motive or object of resistance (Language writing and its second-generation adherents, the “post-avant”). But the desire to create art that deliberately fails by certain standards means that it intends to succeed by others. Lin describes you are a little bit happier than i am by saying:

If my book’s creation was explained as a theme park’s creation I would be building it and then I would build it wrong but the roller coaster materials would already be ordered and then it would have to be built or delayed 3–5 years and I would feel a lot of despair most of the time. When it was finished I would just want to sell the theme park to someone else, but I would think about one part of the theme park a lot, like the fish pond, and feel okay. It was really “a terrible process of despair” or something not unlike being in a relationship and like fighting a lot at night and “needing resolution” before going to sleep. I’m not really sure if this is all true.[58]

What we feel here is a sense of exhaustion, not just with the postmodern or aesthetic possibility, but with the writing process itself, and once again, Lin deliberately weakens his claims by deflating them (“I’m not really sure if this is all true”). What has been expressed and described is immediately dissolved by its own qualification, and as a result, the poetry that Lin has been in the process of constructing is simultaneously obliterated as well.


The techniques of failure that Lin, Hart and others employ seem to reveal a “passive-aggressive … relation to meaning itself”[59] in their simultaneous refutation of and attraction to authority and knowledge (although the poetry they produce, I hope I have shown, differs sharply from that of the post-avant). Indeed, the acts of resistance that Language writers performed mirror somewhat the acts of defiance we are seeing in this newly “sincere” aesthetic. However, the ways in which Hart, Lin, and others go about undermining meaning or conforming to “a grammar of experience”[60] include the deliberate appropriation of sentimental gestures and, in some cases, indirect rejection of post-avant techniques. Hart’s and Lin’s poetry moves against this contemporary thrust by risking explicit self-expression and forms of knowledge through privileging modes of discourse that are essentially sentimental at their core. When these techniques are coupled with a failed content, Hart and Lin refuse the possibilities of the “successful” poem and instead embrace a poetics defined by its own failure.

These poets ask us to consider what the value is for such poetry in a culture which, as Christian Bök has shown us, views the literary arts as increasingly irrelevant. As Hart writes, “In poetry, one has to be open, willing, and able to fail every second. One has to court it, failure. Something’s at stake.”[61] The idea of risking anything implies that what is being risked has a certain value; what’s at stake for these writers seems to be the possibility of human expression in any form. The hazards involved with the divulgence of interiority (embarrassment, sentimentality, readerly critique) turn it into a necessity in which one is required to risk the self in order to produce art. But this risk reaches beyond simply aesthetic concerns and extends to the world of actuality: art becomes a social obligation with the capability of “making ourselves, and everything, better.”[62] What is at stake, then, is not just poetic assertions of real emotion and human value, but those emotions and values as lived in the world.

In a dialogue with Georges Duthuit, Samuel Beckett claims that “to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail”; that “all that is required … is to make of this submission, this admission, this fidelity to failure, a new occasion, a new term of relation, and of the act which, unable to act, obliged to act, he makes, an expressive act, even if only of itself, of its impossibility, of its obligation.”[63] By Beckett’s standard, what is required of an artist is that he make aesthetic failure productive of more than itself, to make “a new occasion” as a result of aesthetic obligation. The artist, both unable to make art and obliged to do so, perpetually exists in a sphere of impotentiality; but rather than shutting down the possibilities for art, a “new term of relation” is necessary. That new term seems to be emerging in the work of these writers, whose “fidelity to failure” is authentic in its intention: “just to make something that stutters sincerely.”[64]



1. Samuel Beckett, “Bram Van Velde,” in Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit (London: John Calder, 1965), 119–26.

2. Stephen Burt, “Sestina! or, The Fate of the Idea of Form,” Modern Philology 105, no. 1 (2007), 218–41. Burt looks at sestinas by Shanna Compton, David Lehman, and Terrence Hayes, among others, noting similarities between the constraints of the sestina and the more radical techniques of the OuLiPo or Flarf poets. Burt claims that such formal limitations “show frustration with their poems’ inconsequence” (238).

3. Ibid.

4. “The sestina is a favored form now as it has not been since the 1950s … because it allows poets to emphasize technique and to disavow at once tradition, organicism, and social or spiritual efficacy” (ibid., 221).

5. Christian Bök, “Writing and Failure (Part 1),” Harriet, The Poetry Foundation (September 12–28, 2007).

6. Bök, “Writing and Failure (Part 8).”

7. Christopher Nealon, “Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism,” American Literature 76, no. 3 (2004), 579–602. Here Nealon considers work by Joshua Clover, Rod Smith, Lisa Robertson, and Kevin Davies, noting parallels between their situation as poets in a late-stage capitalist society and those of the New York school and the Language poets, but claims that these “post-avants” are motivated by “a different sense of historical situation” than either of the earlier groups. In his most recent book, The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century (Harvard University Press, 2011), Nealon continues his study of poetry’s relationship to capital. The final chapter, “Bubble and Crash: Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism,” extends and revises ideas from his earlier essay in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008.

8. Nealon, “Camp Messianism,” 597.

9. I’m thinking here about the projects of writers like Franz Kafka, Hart Crane, Fernando Pessoa, and Samuel Beckett, who in different ways have grappled with the prospect of literary failure. See Walter Benjamin on Kafka, Joseph Riddel on Hart Crane, Richard Zenith on Pessoa, and Beckett’s three dialogues with Georges Duthuit.

10. The term emerges from a short-lived movement centered on a mock manifesto (“Eat Shit! A Manifesto for the New Sincerity”) written by Joseph Massey, Andrew Mister, and Anthony Robinson in 2005. Although a good amount of work has been done which explores the New Sincerity, the focus of this particular investigation is elsewhere, and I will only use the term as a helpful moniker for a specific set of poets and texts which are tangentially related to my argument. For further reading on the New Sincerity, see Anthony Robinson, “A Few Notes from a New Sincerist,” Seth Abramson, “The New Sincerity: Is It and Does It Matter?” (blog post, 2005), Matt Hart, “An Accidental Appreciation: A Few Pieces on Gregory Corso with a Nod Toward a New Sincerity,” Octopus 6, and Jason Morris, “The Time Between Time: Messianism and the Promise of a ‘New Sincerity,’” Jacket 35 (early 2008).

11. Beckett, “Bram van Velde,” 125.

12. I want to clarify how I will be using the terms “failure” and “success.” There are various ways one can talk about failure and its relationship to poetry: we can talk about 1) poems that fail (always a value judgment according to variable criteria); 2) poems about failure as such; or 3) poems about their own specific failures. It is these last two options which I will be discussing here. Like failure, “success” is usually a function of personal or public taste and tends to be determined by criteria dependent upon a work’s historical situation. In this context, I’m interested in success in terms of the choices these authors make to write a “successful” poem according to their own aesthetic interests, as well in as how these choices relate to broader criteria for success.

13. Hart, “Pet Cricket,” in Who’s Who Vivid (New York: Slope Editions, 2005), 58.

14. In “Telling Stories Again: On the Replenishment of Narrative in the Postmodernist Long Poem” (The Yearbook of English Studies 30 [2000]), Brian McHale suggests that “If there is one feature of postmodernist aesthetics on which most commentators agree, it is that postmodernism no longer seeks to ‘make it new’ but more often to make it again (differently). The recycling of historical styles is a hallmark of postmodernist aesthetics across a range of media: in architecture and painting, in the postmodern historical novel, in cinema remakes and the nostalgia film, in retro fashions and in ubiquitous pop-music covers and ‘tribute’ albums” (256). 

15. Jason Morris, “The Time Between Time: Messianism and the Promise of a ‘New Sincerity,’” Jacket 35 (early 2008).

16. Pete Coco, “Review of you are a little bit happier than i am,” EconoCulture (January 30, 2007).

17. John Gallaher, “Tao Lin: you are a little bit happier than i am,” Nothing to Say & Saying It (January 24, 2008).

18. Hart, “An Accidental Appreciation.”

19. Lee Rourke, “Not Bored, Neutral: An Interview with Tao Lin,” 3 A.M. Magazine (September 2, 2008).

20. In “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto,” Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman, and Barrett Watten assert that “the self as the central and final term of creative practice is being challenged and exploded in our writing.” Social Text 19/20 (Fall 1988): 261–75.

21. Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure,” in The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 40–57.

22. Along with this “critique of self” is the critique of the “closed text,” which Hejinian characterizes as “one in which all the elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it” (41–42). She sees this narrowing of possibility as ultimately hierarchical, a poetics that has a “pretension to universality and … a tendency to cast the poet as guardian to Truth.” The “open text,” in contrast, “invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies. It speaks for writing that is generative rather than directive” (43). In other words, the reading and writing processes become one in a situation of distributed agency, an experience shared between poet and reader.

23. Hart edits Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, and Light Industrial Safety, developed with publisher and designer Eric Appleby; Appleby also works with Nate Pritts on H_NGM_N, where Pritts is editor in chief. Dorothea Lasky coedits the poetry chapbook series at Katalanché Press with Michael Carr, and Tao Lin founded MuuMuu House press in 2008. Hart has mentioned that he’s drawn to the small press world as it is “a subversion of the standard values of fame and fortune” (David Sewell, “Risky Business: Interview with Matt Hart,” Coldfront Mag [October 24, 2007]).

24. Laura McCullough, “Inside Hart’s Mind: Laura McCullough interviews Matt Hart, author of Who’s Who Vivid,” Small Spiral Notebook (2007). Some of the poets Hart pinpoints as working in this particular mode include Matthew Zapruder, Sarah Manguso, Dobby Gibson, and Nate Pritts.

25. Corso, “Some of My Beginning … And What I Feel Right Now,” in Exiled Angel: A Study of the Work of Gregory Corso, ed. Gregory Stephenson (London: Hearing Eye, 1989), 87.

26. Hart, “Thinking About …,” Bewilderment Inc. (June 3, 2008).

27. Sewell, “Risky Business.”

28. Ibid.

29. McCullough, “Inside Hart’s Mind: Laura McCullough interviews Matt Hart, author of Who’s Who Vivid,” Small Spiral Notebook (2007).

30. Hart, “Revolutions Per Minute,” in Who’s Who Vivid, 17.

31. Ibid.

32. A similar aesthetic is evident in Hart’s recent collections, Wolf Face (H_NGM_N, 2010) and Light-Headed (BlazeVOX, 2010), though the reliance on the lyric tradition seems at times to supersede the more experimental thrust seen in earlier work.

33. Sewell, “Risky Business.”

34. McCullough, “Inside Hart’s Mind.”

35. Hart, “Only a Transmitter,” in Who’s Who Vivid, 66.

36. Ibid., 55.

37. “Post-avant” has been a term in circulation since at least 1992, when Ron Silliman used it on his blog. Since then it has gained usage mostly in online venues and roundtable discussions (see Joan Houlihan’s debate on the avant-garde with Oren Izenberg, Stephen Burt, Kent Johnson, H. L. Hix, Joe Amato, Alan Golding, and Norman Finkelstein). Recently Reginald Shepherd has offered this definition: “[post-avant] are writers who … have imbibed the lessons of the modernists and their successors in what might be called the experimental or avant-garde stream of American poets, including the Objectivists (especially Oppen and Zukofsky), what have been called the New American Poetries (from Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara), particularly the Projectivist/Black Mountain School and the New York School(s), and Language writing (including such poets and polemicists as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman), without feeling the need … to pledge allegiance to a particular group identity … or a particular mode of proceeding artistically” (“Who You Callin’ ‘Post-Avant’?” Harriet, The Poetry Foundation [February 6, 2008]). Examples Shepherd offers of “established” poets in this vein are Michael Palmer, Bin Ramke, and Cole Swensen; “emerging” writers include Laynie Browne, Noah Eli Gordon, and Matthea Harvey.

38. Tony Hoagland, “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” in Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2006), 179, emphasis added.

39. A portion of this essay was published at The Offending Adam.

40. Gallaher, “Tao Lin: you are a little bit happier than i am.”

41. K. Silem Mohammad, “Tao Lin, you are a little bit happier than i am,” Lime Tree (February 21, 2007).

42. Simon DeDeo, “Tao Lin and Gabriel Gudding (joint review),” Rhubarb Is Susan (March 4, 2006).

43. Mike Young, you are a little bit happier than i am by Tao Lin,” Cut Bank Review (May 29, 2007).

44. I’m primarily referencing some discussions that took place on the Ploughshares blog between Elisa Gabbert, Ana Božičević, and others in early 2008.

45. Elisa Gabbert, “If you don’t secure your own mask first, you’ll just sit there stroking the child’s hair,” Ploughshares blog (February 11, 2008).

46. Conn O’Brien, “Emotional Lit vs. Neutral Lit,” Rhombus Trapezoid Disaster blog (November 17, 2007). Now available at Robot Melon.

47. Tao Lin, “eleven page poem, page one,” in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2008), 17.

48. A similar aesthetic practice that involves neutral tone and paradoxical emotionality is evident in some of the work of Fernando Pessoa. About Pessoa Lin writes, “I like The Book of Disquiet … I like his tone, I think it is ‘emo’ and sarcastic and ultimately playful, like I feel like he enjoys making jokes about how sad and bored he feels because he ‘likes’ his sadness and boredom to some extent, or at least thinks it is funny. Yes, I like Fernando Pessoa. He is probably the earliest writer who had that tone I just talked about that I have read” (Rourke, “Not Bored, Neutral”).

49. Rourke, “Not Bored, Neutral.”

50. Lin, “Book Notes (you are a little bit happier than i am),” Largehearted Boy (December 19, 2006).

51. Lin, “that night with the green sky,” in you are a little bit happier than i am (Notre Dame, IN: Action Books, 2006), 9.

52. Lin addresses this in an interview with 3 A.M.: “I really feel alienated from ‘serious literature’ or something … I think I don’t want to make people feel stupid when they read my writing” (Rourke, “Not Bored, Neutral”). It seems here that “serious literature” or canonical writing is being characterized as inaccessible, and that Lin, though clearly assuming an unselfconscious stance toward his writing, is consciously trying not to alienate potential readers.

53. Lin, “my brother is vacationing on a mountain with his girlfriend and i found out from my dad,” in you are a little bit happier than i am.

54. DeDeo could not have picked an easier target. This really is a bad poem: “i’m tired / i’m going to eat a lettuce / it’s stupid to make sense / i don’t want to make sense anymore / just let me type something and let it be good / i’m tired / i’m stupid / i don’t care” (Juked, March 2, 2006).

55. DeDeo, “Tao Lin and Gabriel Gudding (joint review).”

56. Bök, “Writing and Failure (Part 3).”

57. I’m thinking here of the more recent avant-garde movements such as Flarf (often, but not always, deliberately bad poetry created from the results of Google searches) and the related “Mainstream Poetry” (Michael Magee); practices of direct transcription (see Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day); and recent collections of collaborative poetry (Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney, Philip Jenks and Simone Muench).

58. Blake Butler, “Tao Lin in Interview,” Keyhole Magazine (August 12, 2008). Lin has similar things to say about his novels: “I feel free to write whatever I want to read and even to ‘ruin’ my books like I did with Eeeee Eee Eeee by adding animals to it. It feels exciting to me to ‘ruin’ a book in that way. I feel like it would be exciting to write a linear, realistic novel that has not been ‘ruined’ in any way, which is what I want my next novel to be like I think. I also ‘ruined’ Eeeee Eee Eeee by giving it certain things like cancer and terrorism (I think) and death to make it more ‘important’” (Rourke, “Not Bored, Neutral”).

59. Hoagland, “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” Hoagland writes that “We have yielded so much authority to so many agencies, in so many directions, that we are nauseous … Forced by circumstances into this yielding of control, we are deeply anxious about our ignorance and vulnerability. It is no wonder that we have a passive-aggressive, somewhat resentful relation to meaning itself. In this light, the refusal to cooperate with conventions of sense-making seems like — and is — an authentic act of political, even metaphysical protest; the refusal to conform to a grammar of experience which is being debased by all-powerful public systems. This refusal was, we recall, one of the original premises of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.” The language Hoagland uses echoes the way Gabbert and Božičević detail the phenomenon of “The New Childishness,” whereby the poet assumes the stance of a child and gains power through a kind of naïve rebellion against a vague power.

60. Ibid.

61. Hart, “Lake Lake Lake,” Bewilderment Inc. (July 7, 2008).

62. Hart, “An Accidental Appreciation.”

63. Beckett, “Bram Van Velde,” 125.

64. Hart, “Beautiful Burns,” in Who’s Who Vivid, 19.

A World According to G.W.

On Grzegorz Wróblewski

Translated from the Polish by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese.


Reading Hotel Cats (Rita Baum, 2010), Grzegorz Wróblewski’s collected poems, I wondered how best to talk about his first three collections: The Chewiness of Life (bibLioteka, 1992), Planets (bibLioteka, 1994), and The Valley of the Kings (Biblioteka KARTEK, 1996). Logically, I would have to place his early volumes within the artistic and literary frameworks of the 1980s and 1990s. I would need to outline his response to the most essential questions posed by art (and poetry) at the end of the twentieth-century. I was aware, however, that Wróblewski’s views and attitudes would announce themselves more clearly if such a reading was completed with a reading of his later poems, those from the first decade of the twenty-first-century: The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises (FA-art, 2009) as well as Candidate (Rita Baum, 2010). Therefore, I decided to examine Wróblewski’s books from both vantage points simultaneously.

Let me begin with an overview of the aesthetic framework and, more specifically, its three vital characteristics. First of all, the 1980s bring a significant change in neo-avant-garde strategies of “doing away” with art. After performance art and conceptualism, the neo-avant-garde search focuses on earth art, environmental art, body art and art exploring technological progress (including multimedia). This search leads to the altered understanding of such concepts as nature, environment, and space; it also highlights the numerous possibilities technology offers art. Secondly, aesthetic debates of that time stress more and more frequently positive outcomes from the contemplation of the “crisis” in art and aesthetics. Contemporary aesthetics invites optimistic predictions about the death of fine arts and aesthetics, which can be traced back to, among others, Hegel’s assertions that art belongs to the past. Transcultural, multimedia and pragmatic types of aesthetics seem to suggest a way out of an impasse in discussions about the significance of art in contemporary society. Finally, changes in our understanding of the status of art and in our attempts to define art (urged by “heirs” to the Dadaists and Duchamp) consolidate thoughts about the relationships between politics, economy and culture. According to Hal Foster, in the 1950s this kind of thinking, criticized both by traditional approaches — keen to see the significance of art in the realms of confession and expression — and by avant-garde formalisms, gave rise to two groundbreaking movements: minimalism and pop art, which were then taken up by feminist art, postcolonial art and cultural studies. “As minimalism challenges this order of modern aesthetics, it also contradicts its idealist model of consciousness. For Rosalind Krauss this is the central import of the minimalist attack on anthropomorphism and illusionism” (Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century 42). The attack on anthropomorphism and illusionism as well as the emphasis on the materiality of art and its economic entanglements resulted from political radicalization of the 1970s.

If we choose to view the abovementioned queries of twentieth-century art and aesthetics as questions of poetic activity, we can easily notice inquiries about the significance of poetry as an institution, about the privileged status of poetry in a given country, and about the authority of the poet as a national bard. (Following the antipoetic examples of Tadeusz Różewicz, Miron Białoszewski, Stanisław Grochowiak, and Rafał Wojaczek, poetry loses its moral and aesthetic grounds, although it acquires cultural justification. The paradigm of mass communication is considered a threat as early as mid-1990s by such poets as Krzysztof Jaworski, Darek Foks, and Robert Tekieli.) Critical readings of the poem as an aesthetic form weaken; the poem understood as a cultural artifact comes under attack. Language experiments and concrete poetry of the 1960s and 1970s, which stressed the antirealism of poetic representation by foregrounding the poem’s textuality, language itself and its control over the speaker (the equivalent of neo-avant-garde tendencies to emphasise metaartistic reflection) live on in the work of so-called deconstructive or poststructuralist poets Andrzej Sosnowski, Tadeusz Pióro, and Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, to name just a few. Finally, at the start of the 1990s the contestation of the New Wave poetic school and the politicization of poetry in its socialist version produced a variety of countercultural approaches which diversified the understanding of the political. Numerous poetry books (by such authors as Marcin Świetlicki, Krzysztof Śliwka and Jacek Podsiadło) sought to snub “the idealist model of consciousness” (Krauss’s term) with its transcendental aspirations and lack of response to the social and material world around it.

Which elements of this intellectual and aesthetic climate find their way into Wróblewski’s first books? Neo-avant-garde inspirations, though not readily visible in his poetic strategy (for instance, he rarely resorts to metatextual strategies), are clearly there. Wróblewski is not interested in formally offensive linguistic experiments; he does not set off to prove the literariness of literature, nor does he want to emphasize its representational character. He does not turn his poem into an object, the way concrete poets do; neither does he stress its materiality, which does not mean, however, that his texts are deprived of self-reflexivity. For him these aspects are of secondary importance. He does not want a lyric poem to recover traditional aesthetic values (such as experiencing and contemplating) or to restore traditional readings of poetry. Wróblewski does not seek to prove that reality is artificial, construed or simulated; nor does he wish to reveal secret dimensions of reality. Interestingly, he does not strive against high modernism and its perceptions of art: many of his poems offer some form of confession, though always framed by the understanding of art as resistance, not as affirmation. Neo-avant-garde inspirations can easily be noticed in Wróblewski’s opinions about the relationship between art/poetry and the whole human world (which is not identified with the linguistic medium) and in his convictions about the critical, contestational function of art in society.

It is exactly this “non-reconciliation” (akin to non-affirmation) that I consider fundamental to the social and aesthetic premises established by Wróblewski as the author of Candidate, and to his neo-avant-garde affiliations. In Counterrevolution and Revolt, Herbert Marcuse – the leader of counterculture in the 1970s – emphasized the importance of this non-reconciliatory aspect of art:

The affirmative character of art was grounded not so much in its divorce from reality as in the ease with which it could be reconciled with the given reality, used as its décor, taught and experienced as uncommitting but rewarding value, the possession of which distinguished the ‘higher’ order of society, the educated, from the masses. But the affirmative power of art is also the power which denies this affirmation. In spite of its (feudal and bourgeois) use as status symbol, conspicuous consumption, refinement, art retains that alienation from the established reality which is at the origin of art. It is a second alienation, by virtue of which the artist dissociates himself methodically from the alienated society and creates the unreal, ‘illusory’ universe in which art alone has, and communicates, its truth. (97)

Marcuse recommends art that is able to represent “the forces of oppression” which epitomize the raison d’état or the social status quo: “This is an order which demands resignation, authority, control of ‘the vital instincts,’ recognition of the right of that which is” (95).

Marcuse’s text is vital not only as a document, but also as a set of instructions: although nowadays we are aware of the fact that the ease of reconciling the world with art does not necessarily prove the surrender of art to the commercial and political demands of the established order (pop-art and postmodernism have been accused of submissiveness to capitalism and consumerism), we continue to appreciate the readiness of art to revise the status quo. Artistic activity reveals not only the forces of repression, but also its consequences and connections with other dominant forces — the whole multiplied and multifarious network of relationships and influences, which frequently renders the positioning of various subjects unclear and ambiguous so that it is no longer possible to outline the simple symbolic dichotomy: the governing/the governed. Art and poetry which concentrate on “non-reconciliation” disclose relationships (usually invisible due to resentment, pride, frustration or upbringing) between subjects and processes happening under specific conditions. Wróblewski writes about society, culture, sex and race. A closer look at his poems reveals how the relationship between particular elements of the presented order (social, cultural, aesthetic, etc.) frequently assumes a negative form which results from the duality and uncertainty of every action, position or reaction. The poet’s task (or ambition) is to examine these forces, to avoid presenting them as too anonymous or too personal, and to show how they interrelate under specific temporal and spatial circumstances.

In “Midsummer Night’s Concentration,” from The Chewiness of Life, the speaker’s story suggests a connection between St. John’s Eve celebrations (a custom which might seem a vacant gesture in a contemporary metropolis such as Copenhagen) and primeval forces of the past, most probably not fully apprehended. Their effect on the speaker is perceived most clearly when he observes, “A bearded man in a horned helmet is eyeing me. / He must be a Viking, but I play it cool. / Let him be the first to draw a sword …” Similarly, “A Mexican Ribbon” (The Chewiness of Life) uncovers the relationship between technological culture and magic beliefs.

“Mr. Cullen’s Raid” draws our attention to a bigger history: the 1836 truce between colonizers and Native Americans, as shown through the prism of obsessive actions, seemingly grotesque and funny, but in reality pointing to the speaker’s fundamentalist and nationalist leanings. In “The Parliament” (The Valley of the Kings) Wróblewski focuses on social dynamics, demonstrating how a community can achieve them. The economic controversies, which lead to political and cultural fervor “on the square of Ålholm” — the titular parliament — signal the communal ways of communicating and creating social ties. This poem finds its equivalent in “Psycho Taiga” from Candidate. Here the ecological, social and cultural issues are expressed in the aggressive and frustrated language of those whose voice in public debates typically goes unheeded. Interestingly, these voices were named in “The Parliament,” but in “Psycho Taiga” remain anonymous; they could even belong to the system’s beneficiaries, who believe themselves to be its victims. Such a reading may be justified by “Larsen Tells Us in a Christinshavn Pub about His Undeserved, Little Stabilization” in The Principle of the Series (Instytut Wydawniczy Świadectwo, 2000). None of its interlocutors are satisfied with their position in the social hierarchy: despite higher standards of living, they still perceive themselves as low-wage workers, unwilling to accept their present “bourgeoisie” lives, while at the same time unable to return to their previous status. Moreover, their current, privileged position makes them superior to all those “sad-looking / boys in orange vests / who cut weeds on the moat / since the early morning.” The poem’s protagonists cannot identify with any of the life models presented — this inability proves that “unalienated” life is impossible.

In Chewiness of Life, Planets and The Valley of the Kings the speaker’s disapproval of his own life can be understood literally as an expulsion from various geographic spaces, and symbolically as the speaker’s examination of different factors responsible for integrity or disintegration of societies. For example, in “The Transfer” or in “My New Day” the speaker investigates the conditions that enable people to find their place in a given community. Such an active observation allows conclusions drawn from the failure of “assimilation” efforts. Wherever he is, he perceives himself as an odd element, disturbing the social message; however, thanks to his oddness, he manages to uncover the relations which unite or destabilize a given society, although there is no space here for the carpe diem of the individual fully indentified with the world of social and economic structures.

From the vantage point of Wróblewski’s later volumes, the fundamental thought of his first three books can be easily spotted: being at odds with any socio-economic order. In “A Passenger” from Rooms and Gardens (Biblioteka Narodowa i Duński Instytut Kultury, 2005), the animal world is ruled by economic principles: corruption and venality cannot be avoided in the capitalist system. Unclear relationships between sexes are described in, among others, “She Said: You Resemble an Ape” (The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises) and “Masters of the Night” (Candidate). Here Wróblewski proposes a holistic vision of the world where the relations between culture and non-culture create intriguing combinations: the macho needs not only a victim, but also humiliation. Humiliation, in turn, allows the speaker his rites of passage (as it happens in “She Said: You Resemble an Ape”); leaving behind his childhood and infantilism, he gains enough strength to confront himself. The subcultures of macho men and “good girls,” which condition one another, are presented in simple and clear situations where their interconnectedness emerges through minute meaningful details.

Wróblewski’s poems — focusing our attention on culture, sexuality, politics, economics, or social conventions — offer an excellent opportunity to examine the contemporary world. They zoom in on its complexity while relishing in its detail and hyperbolic shortcuts. At the same time they constitute a camouflaged response to conflicts of our world: they insist on rehearsing thoughts banned by a community, they turn new mythologies inside out. This dismissal of any system where Wróblewski’s speaker could function often leads to the private reappraisal of the paranoia implicit in such a system. “Dodo” (The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises) closes with the description of the speaker rolling “in a jam jar / together with a damaged cherry / and an autistic beetle.” This intensification of the speaker’s paranoic states — his self-defence against the world — proves right on numerous occasions, each time differently. Here, the dodo, a species which ceased to exist at the end of the seventeenth century, becomes the future of a human being. The poem’s closing lines sound like a confession of museum exhibits. The resemblances are not merely coincidental, even if we think that we have puzzled out our biology, and there is no connection between such a complicated creature as a human being and something as plain as “a damaged cherry.” However, this is not only about the impossibility of adaptation. The cherry and the beetle embody the process of mutation; hybridity signals the damage (rather than the rot) of the fruit. The word choice referencing technology rather than organic structure points to a peculiar crossover between a living organism and a mechanical object. Similarly, the beetle’s autism (its malfunctioning brain) complicates its categorization as an insect. Equally mutated is the “rolling I” — it is impossible to guess the speaker’s sex, gender or age. All the features that usually assist the identification of “objects” in space and allow their classification have become deformed. The world of distinct categories for human beings, animals and plants belongs to the past. All the parameters specifying category boundaries have eroded, and yet — if the poem’s temporal setting can be established as “post-mutational” — the memory of the dodo, an odd creature, persists.


Wróblewski aims at recording the images of the world in a manner which could be described, after Walter Benjamin, as dispersive. His construals of mini-observations capturing multifarious relations are akin to Jean Dubuffet’s dense canvases, the detailed art of calligraphy and tachism — the techniques that assemble spatially and temporally disconnected details and found objects. Such assemblage causes dispersal and, at the same time, concentration (fragmentation does not exclude detailed attention), which are not systematized by any unifying principle.

Most importantly, Wróblewski’s work reveals its ethnographic potential. His are poems which discover different geographic spaces organized into distinct forms of life. Wróblewski explores them from multiple perspectives: political, historical, economic, racial, and sexual. They are evoked in the images of concrete human subjects and in their responses to reality.

The poet searches for locality and specificity; he turns away from the universally unchangeable. For these reasons his speaker is not a superior, transcendental author of his texts. None of the perspectives which allows observing and recording various systems, models, orders is privileged; no vantage point becomes the reference point. Therefore, the speaker is always included in the observed order, although he never identifies with it. Moreover, his own perspective is frequently questioned, with its extreme positioning which tends to distort and magnify observed events and phenomena. The borderline between the repressed subject and the upholder of the given system, between the system’s beneficiaries and its victims, is fuzzy. These continual shifts of perspective are essential to demonstrate the hidden complexities of the system which do not allow control over all the processes and relations.

Wróblewski avoids the trap of an ethnographic approach. As Foster warns, numerous artists are susceptible to pseudoanthropological art, where the subject is defined in the terms of cultural identity, and not in economic terms, the tendency noted since the 1990s. Foster points to minimalism, social and theoretical pressures, and postcolonial studies as responsible for such an ethnographic turn. “Thus did art pass into the expanded field of culture that anthropology is thought to survey” (184).

Read from this perspective, Wróblewski’s poems show their multiculturalism. They describe how human behaviour is influenced by a particular space and time; how individuals are conditioned by, but also free from, the culture where they grow up and live; how they are affected by political, social, biological and environmental changes. In other words, such an ethnographic approach foregrounds examinations and interpretations of the “overlap” between cultures in the studies of emigration and uprootedness. A Night in Cortez’s Camp (WBPiCAK, 2007) provides ample evidence: it is a book which focuses on the confrontation (military, religious and, most importantly, communicative) between the Aztec culture and the Spanish culture. Also, the reading of Planets cannot forego the narrative of cultural reciprocity between indigenous peoples and incoming peoples. The ethnographic miniseries created by such poems as “A Visit,” “The Celebrations of a God,” “TV Easter,” “A Reading Room in Christianshavn,” “On the Beach in Dragør,” “Bente,” “Local News” and “Dolny Mokotów” comments on the different manners in which people are organized in space. These different sceneries — beach, reading room, public space, private flat, school — alongside numerous habits, obsessions, oddities, prejudices, rituals, and attitudes (work or leisure, religion or other cultures) build up Wróblewski’s story about his selected corner of the world (his 2000 collection of essays entitled Copenhagen also shows its ethnographic character). In this pursuit Wróblewski shows his affinity with Miron Białoszewski, who was very much intrigued by the diversity of human behaviour.

With their disciplined anthropological attention, Wróblewski’s poems search in whatever conditions for regularity within the origins, existence and activity of the species called humankind. These observations of complex biological, social and cultural systems present the human world in all its rich diversity. This diversity of human life forms constitutes the basic principle governing the world. As Clifford Geertz argues in The Interpretations of Cultures, “If we want to discover what man amounts to, we can only find it in what men are: and what men are, above all other things, is various. It is in understanding that variousness — its range, its nature, its basis, and its implications — that we shall come to construct a concept of human nature that, more than a statistical shadow and less than a primitivist dream, has both substance and truth” (52).

The ethnographic potential of Wróblewski’s work complicates its positioning within the artistic framework at the end of the twentieth century. The philosophy of art and aesthetics of that time — neo-avant-garde experiments with referentiality or representation, as well as existential and metaphysical responses to reality — cannot provide a relevant context for the discussion of Wróblewski’s poems. However, it is exactly the ethnographic framework that can tell us more about the speaker, reality, and language in this poetry.

What does such an ethnographic impulse introduce to our reading of Wróblewski’s work? First of all, it allows us to understand that the poet creates “raw” and “dense” ethnographic records. It helps us to realize that his speaker is not a textual construct, an individualist project of the I or a creation which will dissolve the borderline between the text and the world. Rather, he is “a social actor” (Geertz’s term for the subject of his ethnographic texts), the first-degree informant who creates his own interpretations and who is aware of his own interpretative — authorial, in this case — power. The typical starting point for Wróblewski’s observations of the dynamics of the cultural space created by his poems is an appearance of strange elements on some familiar territory, when known and understandable forms of communication reveal the fragility of convention and context. Alternatively, he introduces familiar elements onto a foreign ground.

This may be one of the ways to read Candidate. Just like Rooms and Gardens as well as The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises, Candidate reveals ethnographic ambitions and ushers in different spaces or, to be more precise, space without any temporal, geographic, national or social borders. Whereas A Night in Cortez’s Camp can be considered overtly ethnographic because of the ease with which we can separate the contemporary narrative from that of the past, only occasionally getting lost in time loops, The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises can be seen as set in a peculiar non-time and outside any symbolic borders of human administration. In “Jaguar/ Cage” the speaker’s desire to live suggests that the so-called natural space (of the city, forest, countryside) does not exist: “Let’s get out of here quick, to the sun / and plutocracy. / (O! After all, Mary has suffered from a heart attack) / Through the doors. Onto the street. Into the cacti or / egiptology. // Among the people, pretending / they are great cats.” “You Tell Me Too Much about Angels” substitutes the reality of concrete, glass and other materials — which constituted the natural surroundings of the protagonists of Planets, The Principle of the Series and The Chewiness of Life or the metaphysical space of dreamlike visions from Rooms and Gardens — with the terrain reduced to “black insects / and colourful butterflies.” Interestingly, The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises swarms with comments about insects, spiders, salamanders, birds and other animals, as if only those forms of life were possible in the world which had suffered a severe stroke. In “Mercury Project,” “the Earth’s nervous snigger” is one of the signals perceived by the terrified speaker “watching / A pack of brown animals romping in an abandoned / Motel parking lot.” [Above: Wroblewski, “Statistics and Informatics.”]

We might say that the landscapes described in these poems are deprived of the symbolic reference which allowed humans to first orient themselves (not only in space) and which defined them as human, or at least gave them their recognizably human shape. It is no longer the vision of multiculturalism known from Wróblewski’s earlier books, but the project of a world without any cultural framework – under such circumstances humans do not differ from other living creatures. Such a claim is supported by the following verses: “Everything boneless / avoids me” (“The Spirit of Flat Opuntias”) and “I’ve ended up among horned insects” (“The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises”). If the slogan that a human being does not exist outside culture is still valid, then Wróblewski’s recent books revive it with all their might. Candidate continues this process of (metaphorically speaking) positioning some sort of human being outside cultural influences, although the book does feature protagonists newly situated in the urban space with all its human behaviors — fitness clubs, beaches, cannibal clubs, male and female courtship games, lotteries — all while waiting for God or fate: “It’s enough to register. The signature / And you will finally / be saved” (“Everything Goes. Hunting for a Candidate”). So we deal here with a human hybrid which is neither a project nor a projection.

Allow me my final interpretative remark. Considering the possibility of generalization in reaching ethnographic conclusions, Geertz proposes vitally that “The locus of study is not the object of study” (22). Bearing Geertz’s comment in mind, we should avoid a literal reading of Wróblewski’s poetic situations, which would turn them into simplistic sociological observations. Although Danes, Greenlanders, Poles and Dolny Mokotów, Japan and Zen Buddhism, Mexico and flower wars are all particular and peculiar individual cases, they afford the generalization and synthesis of what we at times call “the pulse of the planet.”

The plural of us

Uses and abuses of an ambiguous pronoun

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 brought with it a surge in the use of the first person plural. While most would agree that this tragic, history-changing event must be memorialized, I know I’m not the only one made uncomfortable by the ready invocation of this public We. It seems at once abstract and presumptuous, and it plays to a dangerous human desire: to become part of a crowd, and to define oneself against Them. Does this “we” have any real antecedent for an unbounded, diverse populace? Does it claim to speak for me? Whatever the founders may have meant by “we, the people,” it rings hollow in the arena of contemporary politics and popular journalism. With Tonto, I want to ask: What do you mean we, kemosabe?

The first person plural is an indexical pronoun, dependent on context for meaning, but the boundaries are often unclear even to the speaker. And there’s something not only ambiguous but also incoherent in the pronoun. As Franz Boas warned in 1911, “a true [first person] plural […] is impossible, because there can never be more than one self.” Poetry, though we associate it with “I,” is rather fond of “we,” and not only the intimate “we” of private I/Thou relations. But the best poets are also aware that it’s a shifty and treacherous pronoun.

Surprisingly, poetry, the genre we most identify with private, subjective experiences, is far freer in its use of the first person plural than narrative prose, though there are a few bold examples in fiction, such as Kate Walbert’s Our Kind, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides and, most recently, Justin Torres’ We the Animals, works that suggest a “we” prior to or stronger than the individuating psyche.  But poetry has given much freer rein to the first person plural.  At the same time, the pressures and perils of the pronoun “we” are registered with particular sensitivity in the genre with the most acute linguistic self-consciousness.


Perhaps because of its historic attachment to the single voice, lyric poetry has maintained a place for the royal “we” though it is pretty much extinct in other discourses. (Shakespeare’s kings use it all the time, of course, but Margaret Thatcher’s “we have become a grandmother” was widely ridiculed, and even the editorial we of the New Yorker’s voice in “Talk of the Town” was always somewhat arch). Poetry continues to find a use for this peculiar nosism that causes an “I” to speak not for the many but as if it were many. In modern poets, the royal we has often been a trope for division or plurality within the self. Shakespeare scholar John Berryman uses it in Dream Songs, for instance, though his Henry has little kingly stature, and the plurality of the self is a matter of fear or schizophrenic confusion more than status, authority or alliance with the divine.

I’m scared a only one thing, which is me,
from othering I don't take nothin’, see,
for any hound dog’s sake.
But this is where I livin’, where I rake
my leaves and cop my promise, this’ where we
cry oursel’s awake

On the other hand, the plurality of the royal we may still suggest the majesty of the imagination, as it did for Emily Dickinson (“We send the wave to find the wave, / An errand so divine”), as it did for Wallace Stevens (in “The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”), and as it still does for Kay Ryan: “I think poetry is aristocratic, an aristocracy for the mind,” she said in an interview. “You have to make yourself worthy of it.” And her poem “the Task We Set Ourself” (note she does not say  “ourselves”) uses the royal we to reflect that struggle:

the answer sewn inside us
that invalidates the test we set ourself
against the boneless angle at our right
and at our left the elf

If the royal “we” pluralizes the self, the group “we” turns many into one, a rhetorical strategy with its own set of advantages and dangers. In America, poetry has been a strong voice for minority experience, the first person plural announcing a unique group identity and a call for inclusion in society, sometimes both at once. “We” has sometimes been racially marked, but at other times deliberately ambiguous. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” can be read as a particular or as a universal address. Claude McKay’s “If we must die,” addressed to “my Kinsmen” and referencing situations that clearly point to the historical violence of a dominant group against a minority, seems less general, more defiant. McKay eschews the personal lyric in this sonnet; “we” is rallied against a “common foe.” Amiri Baraka’s “Our Nation Is Like Ourselves” foregrounds race and critiques individualism in order to test an American ideal of inclusion: an excluded "we” confronts an ideal of “we, the people” that history belies. But solidarity has its dangers as well, especially when the group loses plurality and becomes an undifferentiated block, a kind of collective ego. For Gwendolyn Brooks, the exclusive “we” of the gang induces false confidence and reckless bravado that not only conceals individual fear and vulnerability, but also obstructs individual reason and conscience. She caught the ironies and dangers of the pronoun unforgettably in “We Real Cool”: “We / Lurk late. We / Strike straight.” Brooks calls out the shots in the enjambed end of the line “We” until the prophecy of the pool hall’s name, “The Golden Shovel” is fulfilled: “We / Jazz June. / We / Die soon.” The pronoun in this poem is clearly indexed to “the pool players,” who are digging their early graves.  (They are seven, one for each deadly sin perhaps). Yet any poem projects a meaning beyond its context and the final “we” applies to all mortals in the game of social survival. Clearly Brooks saw poetry as a specific social intervention on behalf of an oppressed group. But she did not embrace group identity in her poetry. Brooks rarely uses the first person plural in her work.  She individuates the people she describes, even when they are types, and this in turn universalizes them. She gives them names — “Sadie and Maud,” “De Witt Williams,” “Mrs. Coley,” “Jeff. Gene. Geronimo. And Bop” — and breaks down groups into persons, even when, “as seen by Disciplines [police].” “There they are [collectively] […] Sores in the city” (Baraka).

While poetry is traditionally protective of the private self and its claims of personal feeling and identity, it has always been a medium for public protest as well. Recent experimental poets such as C.D. Wright (One with Others) and  Juliana Spahr (The Connection of Everyone with Lungs) have broken down this distinction, especially in the wake of 9/11, redefining personhood within a texture of sociality. But most poetry is still posited on an assumption of an “I” existing prior to a “we,” a single voice reaching out to address or speak for invisible listeners.

The inclusive or universal “we,” addressed to humankind, has different perils from the “we” of group identity. For James Merrill, AIDS put new pressure on the glib notion of the global village, a concept arising as much from consumer culture as from universal fellowship. In “Self-Portrait in a Tyvek™ Windbreaker” he cringes at the cheery “wave” of the “smiling as if I should know her” teenager who, “wearing ‘our’ windbreaker, assumes” a kinship of taste and value based on the printed map of “Mother Earth.” What really underlies this “dumb jacket” of the inclusive first person plural? We may live in the chaos of global corporations and commodities, but such incorporation erases rather than grounds our personhood. And any return to nature, to the Darwinian earth, further dehumanizes us. “We?” he asks sardonically, “A few hundred decades of relative / Lucidity glinted-through by minnow schools / Between us and the red genetic muck — ...” It’s hard to find much comfort or community in a “we” so primordial. Merrill’s imagination retreats from the postmodern clutter and the prehistoric muck into the memory of the smaller, more intimate community of prefascist Naples, preserved in the songs of Robert Murolo. Merrill turns at the end of his poem to the one-to-one community of art, an intimate “we” where the self is not lost in the laws of the state or the “wave” of the masses. 

It’s hardly surprising to hear revulsion toward the mass “we” from so elite a poet as Merrill. But Merrill is often channeling Elizabeth Bishop, and one of the many poems by Bishop he alludes to in his “Self-Portrait” is “In the Waiting Room”: “I — we were falling, falling // [...] beneath a big black wave and another and another.” The lines are in response to a transpersonal “cry of pain” that sends the young Elizabeth into vertigo. In the pre-social vulnerability of the body and its constraints in language and culture the poet finds our commonality; but it’s hardly enough to incorporate a “we” as community, or to give it meaning and value. The shattering of the foundations of the ego does not in itself make way for a new grounding of personhood in sociality. “What similarities [...] [hold] us all together 
or made us all just one?” asks Elizabeth Bishop. Her next words are not an answer: “How unlikely.”


Yet we use the pronoun everyday — there, I’ve done it; it’s impossible to avoid (“Yet I return her wave, like an accomplice” Merrill relents). And we do want to find common ground, to go beyond our atomic experiences and identify shared feelings and values beyond the red genetic muck, whether in local communities or less bounded human experience. Antagonism to the social may be the default position of the lyric, but it has never been the only position. And if poetry is a message in a bottle, it is also, sometimes, a mass mailing. Or is collaboration a better model, since it does not presume to speak for all from the vantage of one, but to forge community in the work of poetry?

The perpetual pursuit of what George Oppen called the “meaning of being numerous” seems to be one of the jobs of literature, and since 9/11 it has had new urgency. In the December 2010 Q&A issue of Poetry magazine, Jane Hirschfield wrote: “I suppose some would say it’s terribly old-fashioned, or terribly arrogant, for a person to use ‘we’ in a poem to speak of ‘us all,’ but it’s a concept I still believe in — that certain experiences are universally and profoundly human, and that one of the possible tasks of poetry is to name or evoke them.” Hirschfield calls us back to an old humanism through the use of a universal “we.” Oren Izenberg’s critical study Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life (2011), proposes a “new humanism” that also returns us to the “ground of social life.” He does not take up poetry’s use of the first person plural pronoun as such, but the idea of “we” formed in poetic experience, in contrast to a poetics of individual experience, is the central principle underlying his analysis of a range of poets from Yeats to Bob Perelman. Indeed, his two kinds of poetry suggest a negative. “Against a poetics of poems that enters deeply into the texture of the experience of persons,” the poets he describes “seek ways to make their poetic thinking yield accounts of personhood that are at once minimal — placing as few restrictions as possible upon the legitimate forms a person can take — and universal — tolerating no exemptions or exclusions. Finally, they will also demand that our concepts of personhood identify something real: not political fictions we could come to inhabit together, or pragmatic ways of speaking we might come to share, but a ground on which the idea of a ‘we’ might stand. This poetry, I argue, is an important site for the articulation of a new humanism: it seeks a reconstructive response to the great crises of social agreement and recognition in the twentieth century.”  That’s a tall order for poetry and it lives more as a project than as an achievement in the work Izenberg analyzes, which may be the point (notice his word “might”), since poetry understood within the “ground of social life” must be a restless, open poetry, embedded in an interactive model of communication.

But the temptation remains not only to enable community through art, but also to identify universal principles of human connection, and this often involves poets in a turn from the “ground of social life” to impersonal dimensions of earth and sky. Inhuman scales and phenomena can create backgrounds to define human experience. In an effort to incorporate a humanist “we” poets of all eras have turned not only to the “red genetic muck," but also to the starry sky above, to discover the moral law within. An alien “it” of the impersonal cosmos rather than an antagonistic “they” of the social realm, incorporates an inclusive human “we.” This strategy informs Tracy Smith’s Life on Mars, which was featured on the PBS Newshour, where essayists often use “we.” In Smith’s “It & Co.” “It” seems to designate what she describes in another poem as “the largeness we cannot see,” a largeness that modern telescopes make palpable, but that drifts off into metaphysics. That invisible “largeness” beyond the boundaries of the human seems to be what helps us form ourselves as a group, helps us become “Us & Co,” the title of the concluding poem of Smith’s volume. Smith seems to use the organizational title less in a spirit of irony than in a spirit of revision, reclaiming it for an uncommoditized ideal of human connection. The title presents more trouble than help, however, in conceiving of “us all” collectively. If “Us” is the whole of humanity caught in the flow of human time, an unbounded, mortal “we,” “Co.” suggests something bound together. If the poem were called “Us, Inc.” we would read it differently, to indicate that “Us” has been incorporated, signed off on, made into a financial and legal body (Viking, Inc.) with clear boundaries. “& Co.” generally follows the name of an individual (e.g. Shakespeare & Co.), suggesting a hierarchical organization. “Co.” designates a firm, an establishment, a house, a concern, or a business. “Company” when unabbreviated suggests something social, as in Stephen Sondheim’s musical by that name. But Smith’s main basis for incorporating “us” seems to be the fleetingness of individual life and its small scale in the universe. The abstractions and metaphors of the poem leave “one” with little sense of what “Us & Co.” really amounts to other than words and vague sentiments.

Tim Donnelly in Cloud Corporation is a lot more suspicious than Tracy Smith of the cosmically incorporated “we” and our ability to escape the atmosphere of commerce. “We” amounts to “a congregation of bodies / united into one immaterial body, a fictive person / around whom the air is blurred with money.” The ambiguities of the subject “we” are multiplied in its range of cases: the objective (us), the reflexive (ourselves), the possessive (our), and the majestic plural (ourself). Donnelly’s brilliant title offers an unredeemed and redeemable image of our collective reality. Living in New York, Oppen’s “city of corporations” that manufactures desire, and living in the internet’s “cloud” that “connects” us by absorbing us into a soulless, all-knowing computation, Donnelly suggests that “we” has taken on a demoralizing, dehumanizing and faceless unreality, a pseudopersonhood. And yet poetry too is a cloud formation, its world is imagination, and its ability to imagine potential community, to give a body to what seems insubstantial is part of its power. So one cloud might provide an antidote to another, if not simple redemption. Like poetry, a cloud seems like fog when you are in it, but seen from a distance a cloud has form and substance. This duality between the debased and the poetic, between an “us” reduced to manufactured desires and an “us” of conscience and aspiration, finds expression throughout Donnelly’s book, perhaps most explicitly in “Claire de Lune.” This villanelle with its repetitive formal unity (its incorporation of words into pattern) enacts an idea of collective self-assessment. The alternating lines establish division within this body that allows the plurality of the first person plural to assert itself, however agonistically. “We revolt ourselves; we disgust and annoy us.” The grammatical strains of the villanelle’s permutations create collective confusion and irony; “we” are in mutiny against our own coercions. “We become like those who seek to destroy us.”  The summation of the villanelle is really a second turn of the screw, however. The self-disgust itself seems to generate the self-destruction when we are not just like the enemy but are becoming the enemy: “We disgust and annoy us / into those we become we who seek to destroy us.” Is there any hope for community in this portrait of hollow, incorporated, evasive, opiated and eviscerated “we,” in this “cat-and-mouse world” of capital? The poet is unique yet part of the group, and this introduces a dialectical element into an otherwise static I/We dichotomy. “Notice the group photo in which I stand / apart from but attached to. I feel I should die if I let myself / be drawn into the center no less than if I just let go.” The strangely hanging preposition “to” where “group” might be the object, reminds us that the group is only abstractly an entity, and has no living “center.”

“We” has always been an ambiguous pronoun in English, as its scope and relation to the addressee can only be interpreted in context. “We” can be royal or communal, universal or parochial, intimate or public, personal or impersonal, inclusive or exclusive, majestic, universal, or corporate. But “we” as an indexical pronoun, is context dependent. It is often hard to disambiguate and readers and listeners often tolerate a large area of confusion or uncertainty about the identity of “we” in a given sentence. But ambiguity is a virtue in poetry if also sometimes a problem. Gertrude Stein preferred pronouns to nouns precisely because they elide the fixities and past conceptions of names, allowing for more open and immediate thought: “pronouns represent some one but they are not its or his name. In not being his or its or her name they already have a greater possibility of being something than if they were as a noun is the name of anything.” In poetry “we” is open ended because poetry is the genre of possibility. Is Bishop underscoring this ambiguity in “The Moose” when she writes: “why do we feel / (we all feel) this sweet / sensation of joy?” Who is included in this “we”? Bishop’s parenthesis both graphically highlights the ambiguity of the pronoun’s inclusion, and gives it extension beyond any clear indexical function in the poem. Poetry depicts small communities but in using the “we” poetry can also metonymically suggest broader ones, so that the sense of the general does not withdraw from the particular into impersonal abstraction. Poetry manages this play of scale without allowing the local “we” to claim any imperial authority or forced consensus.

One thing we can say for certain: “we” includes “I” but is not limited to it. First person plural might better be called first person plus, where the second term of the equation I + X = We needs to be solved. And the equation would also perhaps involve two forms, I + X - hearer = We, or I + X + hearer = We. But insofar as poetry asks us to repeat a speech act, “I” and the hearer become one. Attention to the “we” in poetry causes us to pose many questions, then. Among these are: What conditions allow the poet to speak as if in accord with others? Can the poet construct a “we” that retains multiplicity within its choral force? When does the poem give assent to this claim of collective identity and when does it distance itself? Does the poem point to the “we” as an already established identity, or does it produce this “we” in performance?  Modern poetry often creates a face of we that is volatile in character and number and avoids the mask of a restricted as a universal interest.

How do we profit from this scrutiny of first person plurals? Maybe just in an awareness of the pitfalls of the pronoun — in an imperative to listen to ourselves, or at least to "ourself," and go back to the face to face encounters, even the faceoffs, that are the foundation of any community.  “We” derives from the horizontal, ever-shifting clusters of I/Thou relations. All first person plurals are particular, whether they are inclusive or exclusive. At the same time, poetry’s first person plural, in which the indexical situation is often obscure or ambiguous, suggests how the genre might propose or project community, create a sense of potential in “us” which is not predicated on consensus or the mentality of the crowd.

Poets are intensely aware that language is not just a system of rules, but a community of users, who shape it in their direct and indirect speech acts. Poetry sometimes wants to refer to or speak for a preexisting group, or wants to expose or critique “we” as social performance rather than something natural or given.  But it also often tries to bring into being a particular “we” that has been obstructed in history; hence the appeal of poetry in emerging cultures.  Finally, though, “poetry makes nothing happen,” as Auden said. Its ultimate performance may be abstract; it calls up human feeling without confining it to historical particulars or divisions, perhaps even interrupting these. This “we” is projective, parabolic, and provisional. Poetry can keep the first person in the first person plural, and keep the plural from becoming too incorporated, too singular.