ESCAPE FROM EMO

As T.S. Eliot wisely put it, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emo, but an escape from emo.”

The Volta, a new blog, didn’t get the memo.

The blog began in 2011, and issue 13 in 2012 has added a regular poems and interview feature. 

Not that we’re thrilled. 

We first checked out the four “poetics” essays.  The first one, by a guy named Shane, begins,

I tried to kill myself when I was seventeen. Honestly, I can’t remember whether or not I was sad, but I think I was. What I do remember is the method I used—I washed a bottle of Tylenol PM down with a glass of chocolate drink (not chocolate milk—the label on the milk jug-shaped jug specifically said “chocolate drink”), and put My Bloody Valentine’s “Swallow” on a loop. Here, have a listen [with a link to a forgettable music video by the hipster act].

And the piece ends like this,

Most of my favorite poems, however, construct at least part of the self—my self—with which they’re intimate. They succeed as poems because I don’t see the construction happening—while I’m reading the poem, a new part of my self is just suddenly there. And that new addition might be mostly temporary, but, while I’m reading the poem, it’s as surely a part of me as my arm is. Each poem makes a ghost limb.

That intimacy was what I was looking for when I chose “Swallow.” I chose it because I didn’t want to die alone.

The editors encourage emo submissions, since on their site, we read: 

Please note that while poetics is a broad term, we are not looking to publish reviews or poems of any length.

We seek instead: essays, treatises, experiments, manifestos, letters, roundtables, inquiries—even meditations, polemics, and diaries. Related, however obliquely, to poetry, or “whatever else falls within the same inquiry.”

Don’t send us “reviews of poems;” send us your “diaries!”

Just what poetry needs. 

The next writer, a woman named Rusty, tells us she is more aware of “silence” after the death of her parents. 

The next essay, by Boyer Rickel, begins, “Our present is mostly a past,” and dives into old summer memories.

The final essay by Elizabeth Robinson comes closest to something which might be called Ralph Waldo Emerson lite, but is dragged down by cliche:

If mystical experience is dialogic and if poetry presumes and is based in some form of dialog then poetry is mystical experience.

(Yes, and Ray Charles is God.)

All of this might hinge, for those brought up in the western Christian tradition (either explicitly or via cultural suffusion) on what we mean by the word, “word.”

(a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds and their written representation

—speech or talk

—lyrics of a song, as opposed to the music

—talk or conversation

—a verbal signal

—authoritative utterance)

The dictionary I have is not helpful with etymology—

word, Wort, orth, waured, wirds, verbum, vardas
It hints that in some derivations “word” might be related to “name.” Hence the oral, spoken sense of “word” that predominates in the definitions may shift to an understanding of “word” as label or sign.

But in the first verses of the Gospel of John, in the New Testament, we also have this:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.

How many essays on poetic language and “presence” quote “In the beginning was the Word,” and ruminate quasi-mystically in this manner?  Thousands?  Millions?

The Volta interview begins this way:

Joshua Marie Wilkinson: 2011 was a big year for you, with the release of both Howell and Adventures of Pi. Would you mind reflecting a bit on how these books came to be, what’s changed from work to work, and whether or not you continue to conceive of the book-length work as is its own particular endeavor?

Tyrone Williams: The vicissitudes of publishing are particularly vexed in the world of small presses. I certainly hadn’t planned on publishing Adventures of Pi, an old manuscript dating from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, and Howell, a book I’d conceived of and worked on, with various interruptions (e.g., On Spec), from 1998 to 2008. I sent the finished manuscript of the latter in 2009 because On Spec had just come out and I didn’t know the publishing target date for Howell. Meanwhile, the Hero Project of the Century, which was supposed to have come in 2007, appeared in 2009—I was worried that it might appear with Howell, but I heard from Travis Ortiz in 2009 that he’d just started working on the production of Howell, so I figured I was safe. I didn’t hear anything again until fall of 2010. Meanwhile a local Cincinnati publisher, Dos Madres, was interested in publishing those older poems, but I held off. When I didn’t hear anything more from Travis at the beginning of 2011 I gave the go-ahead to Dos Madres for Adventures of Pi. Then I heard from Travis later that spring, and he informed me Howell was due for a fall release. In both cases, for both publishers, Robert Murphy at Dos Madres and Travis Ortiz at Atelos, delays were complicated by family issues. I understand; I’m just happy to have people interested enough in my work to want to publish it at all.

As for how I conceive of the work, Adventures of Pi is obviously a collection of poems, conceived as a whole, but certainly less so than Howell, which is a kind of symphony. Since completing Howell, I’ve been writing more normative, lyric-based poems, for a couple of new manuscripts, which are definitely in the germinating stages.

Wow.  Who cares about this stuff?  Who can possibly think there’s a public for this? 

Finally, here’s a sampling of one of the poems:

Take the most abstract
Forms you can imagine.
Now break them down
Into tiny people,

Wrestling at arm’s length
For some soup. The
Heaviness of the day
Was taken with us,

Lost as we are in
Imagination’s tirade.
The partial wind blows
Over the fields. I mark

My freedom to its end,
Dance with the long-
Legged lemurs, the consonance
Astounds me! No more

Crying in this landscape,
Kiss goodbye to the flowers.

e. e. cummings would be outraged; it’s just like his poetry—without the strange layout.   Have people no respect?

It might be endearing if this blog were published by high school students, but there’s more than a dozen professors on Volta’s masthead, many of them creative writing teachers. 

Why does this supposedly sophisticated on-line journal confuse poetry with emo?   “Creative writing” should be a clue. This is not to say that suicide attempts and deaths of parents and old memories are not worthy of our respect, but poetry is not it, poetry is it transformed.   The Creative Writing industry has much in common with emo, because the client, or student, of the Creative Writing industry is both consumer and product. 

The product of the Creative Writing industry is the apprentice writer’s own memories and emotions—valuable only to the student/poet whose memories and emotions they are.  “Write what you know” and “find your voice” are two key Writing Workshop mantras, and for good reason. The student does not study the best examples of philosophy and history and criticism, so much as how to turn his or her emo diary entries into fairly passable poetry.  Emo memories and Ralph Waldo Emerson lite is in endless supply, so the recent academia-as-creative-writing-business-model will be good for years.

Maybe we should blame all of this on Shelley and his, “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed!”   This is one of those iconic lines, like “Nevermore” and “Miles to go before I sleep” and “Let us go then, you and I” and “I saw the best minds of my generation…”  But “Ode to the West Wind” is a great poem, not a diary entry.

And Shelley could also write essays like this (the beginning is quoted below):

He who asserts the doctrine of Necessity means that, contemplating the events which compose the moral and material universe, he beholds only an immense and uninterrupted chain of causes and effects, no one of which could occupy any other place than it does occupy, or act in any other place than it does act. The idea of Necessity is obtained by our experience of the connection between objects, the uniformity of the operations of nature, the constant conjunction of similar events, and the consequent inference of one from the other. Mankind are therefore agreed in the admission of Necessity, if they admit that these two circumstances take place in voluntary action. Motive is to voluntary action in the human mind what cause is to effect in the material universe. The word liberty as applied to mind is analogous to the word chance as applied to matter:  they spring from the ignorance of the certainty of the conjunction of antecedents and consequents.

Every human being is irresistibly impelled to act precisely as he does act: in the eternity which preceded his birth a chain of causes was generated which, operating under the name of motives, make it impossible that any thought of his mind, or any action of his life, should be otherwise than it is. Were the doctrine of Necessity false, the human mind would no longer be a legitimate object of science; from like causes it would be in vain that we should expect like effects; the strongest motive would no longer be paramount over the conduct; all knowledge would be vague and undeterminate; we could not predict with any certainty that we might not meet as an enemy to‑morrow him from whom we have parted in friendship to‑night; the most probable inducements and the clearest reasonings would lose the invariable influence they possess.  The contrary of this is demonstrably the fact. Similar circumstances produce the same unvariable effects. The precise character and motives of any man on any occasion being given, the moral philosopher could predict his actions with as much certainty as the natural philosopher could predict the effects of the mixture of any particular chemical substances.  Why is the aged husbandman more experienced than the young beginner? Because there is an uniform, undeniable necessity in the operations of the material universe. Why is the old statesman more skilful than the raw politician? Because, relying on the necessary conjunction of motive and action, he proceeds to produce moral effects by the application of those moral causes which experience has shown to be effectual. Some actions may be found to which we can attach no motives, but these are the effects of causes with which we are unacquainted. Hence the relation which motive bears to voluntary action is that of cause to effect; nor, placed in this point of view, is it, or ever has it been, the subject of popular or philosophical  dispute.  None but the few fanatics who are engaged in the Herculean task of reconciling the justice of their God with the misery of man will longer outrage common sense by the supposition of an event without a cause, voluntary action without a motive. History, politics, morals, criticism, all grounds of reasoning, all principles of science, alike assume the truth of the doctrine of Necessity.  No farmer carrying his corn to market doubts the sale of it at the market price. The master of a manufactory no more doubts that he can purchase the human labor necesary for his purposes than that his machines will act as they have been accustomed to act.

 We have a hunch that writing as strong as this will never appear in The Volta.

Shelley wrote the above when he was a teenager, having been tossed out of Oxford after a couple of semesters for his atheism.

If you’re going to do emo, you might as well do it right.

13 Comments

  1. David said,

    January 3, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Tom,

    Note that Shelly didn’t go all emo when Daddy stopped paying his way to Oxford. He endured two years of financial destitution and got on with his life. I might deplore his philosophy, but I have to admire his integrity and grit. (On a side note, my atheist son has lately embraced Shelley’s doctrine of necessity, as channeled through Sam Harris. What can I say? It’s a journey. I don’t intend to stop paying his tuition.)

    Lately, I’ve dreamed of writing religious poetry that embodies Shelley’s potent combination of deeply felt emotion and metrical control. Here are the first two stanzas of a new poem:

    Descend to us from God’s right hand,
    Jesus, merciful King;
    Visit the tents of this woeful land
    Where refugees in darkness sing
    A vain lament for all that’s lost –
    Eggshell eyes brittle with frost.
    Open up your wing.

    Each day I wake as prayer is flown,
    Jesus, I am drained;
    My spirit is a sinking stone,
    On charge of sloth I am arraigned.
    Fat faith glib in certainty,
    Self-eaten by intensity,
    All my substance strained.

    Meh. Not sure if this one is going anywhere, but I’m taken by the idea. In any case, I’m making sure to have a side of Shelley with my Transtromer each day.

    David

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 4, 2012 at 5:33 pm

      Yea, most people don’t realize that Shelley did walk the walk. He may have been odd, but he put it on the line.

      David, that’s not bad, your ear is fine, but short, rhyming lines don’t fit the sublime; you’ll have to increase your line-lengths and come up with a better stanza form; also Jesus is such a lightning rod of associations, I would substitute something else as so many great poets of the past did—use myth?

      • David said,

        January 4, 2012 at 6:06 pm

        That’s a good suggestion, Tom. I hadn’t thought about the affect of line length on conveying the sublime. The form above I borrowed from Shelley’s “To Night”. I’m working now on a sonnet to my wife for Valentine’s Day. I’ll share the first draft soon.

        • David said,

          January 4, 2012 at 6:16 pm

          I’ll share the first draft soon.

          That is, as long as you don’t mind! I appreciate the constructive criticism.

          • thomasbrady said,

            January 6, 2012 at 2:59 am

            Oh yes, please share the draft.

            Shelley’s poem is marvelous:

            Swiftly walk over the western wave,
            Spirit of Night!
            Out of the misty eastern cave
            Where, all the long and lone daylight,
            Thou wovest dreams of joy and fear,
            Which make thee terrible and dear, –
            Swift be thy flight!

            Wrap thy form in a mantle grey,
            Star-inwrought!
            Blind with thine hair the eyes of Day,
            Kiss her until she be wearied out,
            Then wander o’er city, and sea, and land,
            Touching all with thine opiate wand –
            Come, long-sought!

            When I arose and saw the dawn,
            I sighed for thee;
            When light rode high, and the dew was gone,
            And noon lay heavy on flower and tree,
            And the weary Day turned to his rest,
            Lingering like an unloved guest,
            I sighed for thee.

            Thy brother Death came, and cried
            `Wouldst thou me?’
            Thy sweet child Sleep, the filmy-eyed,
            Murmured like a noontide bee
            `Shall I nestle near thy side?
            Wouldst thou me?’ -And I replied
            `No, not thee!’

            Death will come when thou art dead,
            Soon, too soon –
            Sleep will come when thou art fled;
            Of neither would I ask the boon
            I ask of thee, beloved Night –
            Swift be thine approaching flight,
            Come soon, soon!

            —I was wrong about short lines and sublimity—Shelley manages to do it, here, anyway. What helps his poem is the compactness, the focus; idea, imagery, music all seem fused…poetry written today seems so loose. scattered and trivial, by comparison…

            • David said,

              January 6, 2012 at 5:42 am

              After reading Shelley, it is with trepidation that I share this …

              To Peggy

              When we met, my head was full of smoke
              And Plato, yet being rapt I cleared
              A space to hold each word you spoke
              And held at bay the ugly thing your feared.
              We married in the Church, the smoke turned
              To incense that wove a headier distraction –
              I followed the scent of holy books that burned
              My brain and stole from you my sole attention.
              While these are not the caddish deeds you dreaded –
              These trysts in mildewed bowers with leafy-haired Sophia –,
              Unfaithfulness more subtle has proven me wrongheaded:
              Lust for Truth has kept me from my dark-eyed Margarita.

              Past silver years I’ll seek no desert in the pathless sea;
              Your arms will be my cloister, your lips, my breviary.

              http://anointedruins.wordpress.com/2012/01/05/to-peggy/

  2. JA said,

    January 3, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    A sad day when the king of twaddle kicks fuck outta the kids for being kids. At least they’re having a go, setting up websites, writing stuff no one’s gonna read. Same as us.

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 4, 2012 at 5:37 pm

      JA,

      But they’re not kids. They’re professors.

      “Having a go” is great, but it’s tragic when the ‘go’ is fraught with error.

      The professors should know better.

      Tom

  3. David said,

    January 4, 2012 at 5:26 am

    Tom, you should submit a poetics essay to The Volta, just for the heck of it.

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 4, 2012 at 5:45 pm

      A send-up is in order, I think.

      Everybody these days talks about ‘poetry’ in the same way, whether it’s those introductions written by Lehman and his guest editors in the Best American Poetry, or those types of essays found in ‘The Volta.’ It always comes down to psuedo-intellectual, touchy-feely, wan cheerleading—disconnected from any real observation or hard thinking about the issue. It makes you want to run to William Logan… And there’s a reason for this horrible writing…it’s because creative writing is now such a big business and real criticism is simply not wanted…recall that Socrates argued with sophists who made money off their “wisdom….” This is exactly what’s going on…it’s money talking, even if it’s just a young person on a blog like “The Volta,” because this is the tune the creative writing professors/poets are playing. It’s filled with the most wretched hypocrisy and stupidity, and the tune they are playing deflects all criticism with “emo sincerity…”

  4. David said,

    January 4, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    …recall that Socrates argued with sophists who made money off their “wisdom….”

    Yes, making the weaker argument appear the stronger, or, in this case, making the ugly poem appear beautiful.

  5. Anonymous said,

    January 6, 2012 at 3:05 am

    You are an ass

  6. David said,

    January 6, 2012 at 6:42 am

    Alongside emo poetics, there is this disconcerting aspect of Modernism’s legacy …

    A Poem is a Machine

    Anxious and Paralyzed

    From the latter:

    All four poets are reacting to big modern systems, above all to the system called capitalism, whose results and failures seem inescapable, from the swells of the North Pacific (where miles of plastic collect and glaciers decay) to the American flag on the moon. Their poems look like disrupted systems, fractured but conveying information nonetheless. In paths through and under and around those systems, economic, environmental and linguistic, these poets address what the critic and poet Christopher Nealon calls the “matter of capital,” the built-up stuff (facts and texts) that our social system manipulates and accumulates, treats as fungible or attempts to discard. The poets pursue reportage, or take stabs at abstract argument, and their work incorporates, adopts or deforms blocks of expository prose; their books are part essay, part catalog, part collage, and yet they possess the oddity, the density and the emotional resonance of the language we still seek in poems.

    Spahr also writes poems called “sonnets,” fourteen-line units with iterations meant to replace the personal depth—the “I”—sonnets have long offered with a flat, more democratic, collective voice. “Things should be said more largely than the personal way,” Spahr avers in a sonnet whose awkwardness nonetheless makes it feel “intimate” (“Intimate confession is a project…. There is in this the thought of home”). Each sonnet occurs on a recto, or odd-numbered, page; each verso page conveys statistics about human blood, “glucose at 111 milligrams per decaliter/creatinine at 0.9 milligrams per decaliter.” The body, like the household and the economy and Hawaiian ecology, is a system; whether or not we see it on its own, or as a set of interdependent parts, or as one part in some larger system (a city, a species, the earth) depends on our purposes, our angle of view.


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