Beauty or mayhem

'Poetry Sophie's Choice' for Lawrence Giffin

Lawrence Giffin

Lawrence Giffin has done and said some of the funniest things I’ve ever seen or heard in poetry. His readings always feel to me like they walk along a fine line between uproarious and deeply critical. I can’t say exactly what they are critical of, because I can never quite tell. Is he making fun of poetry? himself for writing it? And this hilarious criticality comes in the package of always impressive, sometimes tour-de-force writing. There is clearly love for the art in his work  — he works hard and that is a kind of love  — but there also always seems to me a chasm of critical distance between Giffin and whatever he’s saying. And that chasm is often where the uproarious happens.

The first time I saw Lawence read was about three years ago at the annual Whiskey Reading organized by Rob Fitterman and Bob Holman, where five readers each read for about 10 minutes and their reading is paired with a particular whiskey, which the reader also has to describe on stage. That year Lawrence read a piece where the phrase “The Duke” (was it a character? a straw man?) recurred quite a bit. The piece, performed in Lawrence’s best most exagerrated southern accent, played off critiques literary camps lob at each other, and this one often sounded like the voice of a standard bearer of southern literary tradition who did not like experimentation or theory. But it wasn’t framed as a send up of southern conservatism  — that would be too easy, a little on the nose  — instead, it bobbed and weaved among positions cueing each to resonante as anywhere from ridiculous to insightful to ignorant to inspired, etc. This is my foggy memory of that whiskey-feuled night three winters ago. Whether I’m getting all the facts of the piece right or not, I have several times since heard Lawrence read and found his work and his performances of it always walking this same fine line. Positions are at once clear and hard to make out, voices are sometimes his and sometimes not and no one I have asked agrees which it is when,. But almost everyone is always laughing, sometimes in stitches.

This, I think, is why the terms “beauty” and “mayhem” both come up when I think of Lawrence. Based on his work I’m comfortable saying he’s committed to beauty. I think he finds it more in the lyric than I or many of his friends do, but he works both in and as far away from that tradition as one can, and I respect how he does impressive work in whatever form he takes up. Mayhem, on the other hand, is a word I associate with deeply disruptive characters, anarchic forces  — the Joker always, Roseanne Barr singing the National Anthem, those girls causing a ruckus in Daisies  — and I have found Lawrence’s writing and his performances disruptive, in a good way. It confuses people; what is he thinking? what side has he taken? why did he interrupt himself and toss his poems behind him and roll his eyes? some think he’s making fun of them personally, others think he’s making fun of himself, still others decide he’s making fun of whatever thing they don’t like; some think he is happy and funny; others think he is dead serious. Whenever he reads I’m always ready for a little mayhem. It’s just poetry-world mayhem  — not as threatening as the Joker  — but every scene needs its disarming moments, we can’t and shouldn’t always be comfortable.

Below, Giffin shares his sense of what these two words mean and carry with them  — and makes his choice:

For a short time when I was very young, I fixated on oak galls, the small balls of fuzz attached to the underside of some oak leaves, which I would find on the ground in the backyard in early fall. I would peel off a gall and carry it around like a pet, or rather, something between a pet and a child. The gall was something to be cared for, and I felt intense affection for my gall, and it seemed to me that the gall was anxious for my care.   At some point in my tender attentions, inevitably and without warning, a desire, or rather, a compulsion, to tear that gall apart would overtake me. This was all so long ago, and I was not then and am not now able fully to comprehend the peculiar thrust of this desire. Was it one of revenge? A need to see inside the gall, what made it tick? I can’t deny that this little drama, which was repeated over and over, had for me then an unambiguously erotic character.   (My fuzzy little gall is in reality a sort of cocoon for what is called a gall wasp. The gall is the leaf’s own response to the irritations of the wasp, a defense formation that harbors the wasp larva.)   Around this same time, I performed a similar bit of theater involving a terrycloth baby doll that belonged to my sister  — cradling and rocking the doll, then squeezing the doll violently and, with all the weight of my little body, pressing it into the carpet.   Invariably, after tearing open the gall or squeezing the soft doll to no effect, I would feel, instead of satisfaction or bewilderment, only disappointment and frustration, feelings to which I might now apply the Lacanian expression ce n’est pas ça, “that is not it.” And yet, somehow, that was it  — apart from the disappointment in not having encountered, despite my best efforts, the object of my desire, it all still worked. Something indeed worked out, and my disappointment was nothing other than a by-product of a successful if extra-personal process. I find this idea repeated in Berrigan’s line, “There’s no such thing as a breakdown.”   The desire (to tear apart the gall, to wring the terrycloth baby) preceded the object, producing it, perhaps, in the vacuum of anticipation. This is the origin (but not the end) of the lines, “a terror that lingers/in place of the beautiful doll, /the fuzzy animalcule, alone/in the backyard,” from my poem “The Liberation.” I think my poetry, up to this point at least, has given shape to the thought that my desire seems to produce only terror.   How do we go on thinking, working, communicating (or, per Ashbery’s triplet, “touching, loving, explaining”) if we no longer expect to be saved in the end, if we no longer hope for redemption, salvation, and everlasting happiness  — in a sense finally to be joined with the object that animates us?   And finally, to bring this half-remembered and poorly relayed memory back to the glove Kristen threw down at my feet, “Poetry Sophie’s Choice: Beauty or Mayhem,” I would first like to say that if we no longer expect beauty, we cannot therefore in good faith opt for mayhem. I worry that by posing mayhem as the countersign of beauty we would indulge ourselves in the misguided rebellion of the teenager, the ressentiment of a pedant deft only at organizing his books.   I think it was Nietzsche who said, “I never met an ideal I didn’t want to hammer.” True beauty, the irruption of a mute and unaccountable fact into a heretofore closed world, would appear alternately as seduction and mayhem. Beauty would not be linked to pleasure (except the guilty kind) and would not be transcendental, yet it would have to be universal, which is why it would demand some discursive articulation  — this is what Stevens meant when he wrote, “Beauty [...] in the flesh [...] is immortal.”   By insisting on aesthetic experience, must I therefore affirm my creative originality, the inherent value of my personal experience, over and against the material history of my preferred art form? Not at all. I content myself with dissolving the dyads that seem to stifle my ability to produce art: experience and knowledge, content and context, the aesthetic and the conceptual, the subjective and the objective, and, why not, beauty and mayhem. I aim only to be a good nihilist, which means necessarily to be generous and compassionate person, selfless but not submissive  — in short, I aim to be the happiest person on the earth. As such, I find it useful in art to practice a discipline of withdrawal, abstention, indecision, and suspension, to practice what can only be recognized as idiocy.   Some might take this stance to be one of political cowardice. That could be true, but it’s the only chance I can see that I have one day maybe to write a little permissive poem  — a poem that would have the aesthetic immediacy of an ‘okay.’