Thursday, November 19, 2009

Eckhart Tolle IS John Ashbery

That's the conclusion I drew from reading Adam M. Bright's article "Here, Now: Eckhart Tolle Takes the Stage" in the new magazine The Point, "a Chicago-based print journal devoted to rigorous intellectual essays on contemporary life," that I picked up at the newsstand before boarding the train to work this morning. (Parenthetically, I love taking the train to work; I love that there's an actual newsstand—a very well-stocked one—at Chicago and Main in Evanston.) The article is an appreciative look at Tolle's philosophy that addresses the fact of skepticism toward New Ageism and gurus in general but doesn't really try to argue or persuade the reader; in so doing, Bright adopts Tolle's stance as his own without really trying to convince of his critical distance. "Escaping thought and returning to Being is my life’s purpose if I believe it is. It’s a blank-faced bovine god if you believe it’s not."

But what fascinated me most about the piece was how its description of Tolle's spiritual practice—and I do believe it's a spiritual practice, though it boggles me how Bright could neglect its obvious connections to various strands of Eastern mysticism and meditation practice in general—amounts largely to disidentifying the self with the mind, and how well this seems to describe the poetic practice of John Ashbery. Tolle tells his audience that they must step back from the interior monologues that accompany all of our actions, to view them dispassionately as "possessing entities," and to step into "a depth in that still alert space between thoughts and that is here, now." Isn't that "between thoughts" where the action happens in an Ashbery poem and its bewilderingly sinuous, pseudo-hypotactic sentence structures? Consider this little chunk of Flow Chart:
The incubus awoke from a long, refreshing sleep.
A lot of people think they have only to imagine a siren for it to exist,
that the truth in fairy tales is somehow going to say them. I tend to agree
with dumb people who intervene, and are lost; actors of a different weakness
who explain the traceries of fallen leaves as models for our burgeoning etiquette,
a system that does't let us off the hook as long as we are truth and know it,
the great swing of things. And of course it may yet turn up.
I couldn't believe he said it. But that's the way we lived. It existed.
I've been at this stand for years and I think I see how the wool
is pulled over our eyes gradually, so that each of us thinks of ourselves as falling asleep
before it happens, then wakes to a pang of guilt: was it that other me again?
Why did I take my mind off the roast, as it turned
hypnotically on its spit, and now it's charred beyond recognition?
As with many Ashbery poems this excerpt seems to adopt the neurosis of modern postindustrial life as its subject matter, but it's Ashbery's form—the emptied-out conjunctions that coordinate without coordinating, subordinate without subordinating—that actually give us the feel of dipping into the stream of consciousness without ever capturing or summarizing or taking firm hold of that consciousness, as a cupfull of muddy water bears an at best metonymic relationship to the Mississippi River.

I don't know if Ashbery lives in the state of nirvana-like bliss that Bright ascribes to Tolle, if he actually places his "self" within what Tolle calls "presence" as opposed to "the mental story of me." But I've often felt my own response to his poetry mirrors somewhat Bright's response to Tolle: frustration at my inability to conceptualize what any given poem seems to be up to gives way to delight in what Ashbery has called "the experience of experience," a delight homeomorphic with boredom. Tolle's persona eerily mirrors this: as Bright writes, "Tolle’s charisma, the magnetic quality of his personality, is almost an anti-charisma. He’s made himself so boring, punched so far through the back end of dullness, that we feel his simplicity must represent some incredible inner power." Anyone who's ever actually been in Ashbery's presence or heard him read might nod with recognition at this.

The comparison for me highlights the nigh-invisible separation between genius and charlatanism that dogs the reputations of both men. Yet I am more skeptical about Tolle than Ashbery. I suspect Tolle's teaching probably does bring about actual good in people's lives, whereas I'm not sure Ashbery's influence has been entirely healthy for poetry. But I think the effort to conceptualize what Ashbery is up to is good and necessary: his writing is a kind of puncture or suture in our discourse that generates critical thought and perhaps pushes it into more open and dialectical directions, even if "You have it but you don't have it" ("Paradoxes and Oxymorons"). There seems to be no such effort to think Tolle, who presents himself in a profoundly un- if not anti-intellectual way, and Bright's article doesn't ultimately do much to challenge this.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


The number of visits to this blog since its inception in January 2003. Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Nel mezzo del romanzo

I heard an interview with Zadie Smith on the radio the other day—she has a new book of essays out, and coincidentally is about to give birth—and she talked about writing novels and how beginnings were painful and endings exruciating, but the middle was something else again: it was... narcotic. To paraphrase how she put it, when you're in the middle—which doesn't necessarily mean the geographic middle of the finished book—your spouse might be telling you s/he wants a divorce and all you can think about is whether "rummaged" or "rifled" is the better word. You're lost in the world of sentences, and the actual world loses its usual opacity.

Then there's this quote from the essential new book Letters to Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics, and Community, in a letter from Paul Hoover to Albert Flynn DeSilver. DeSilver's previous letter had outlined various projects from building a house in Marin County to various literary and artistic works, including a "Novel" (the scare quotes are his). In Hoover's response he talks about his single novel, which met with some success (and was the occasion for a entertaining book of poems, The Novel, a bemused meditation on the prestige of the form), adding "I know that novels were never mine to do." And then there's this: "Novels steal attention from poetry, long prose also.... The theft is of time and labor, not of inspiration."

"The theft is of time and labor, not of inspiration." I know Paul is only speaking for himself here, but it confirms my experience of the past eight months. Writing Miramare (a working title), I had some expectation that the novel would become the open repository of everything I was thinking and feeling, vampirically absorbing other energies. Because the last time I attempted a novel, in my early twenties in New Orleans (1993 - 1996), I definitely experienced Zadie Smith's absorptive "middle." The writing was real—the story, my characters, the music I listened to while writing (florid stuff: Prokofiev, Queen)—while the rest of my life, which frankly at that time was something of a disaster zone, faded by comparison. I didn't write any poems—didn't, at that time, think of myself as a poet any more, though I'd been writing poetry seriously since I was fifteen—and often, didn't even write the novel, which became too big to face, since I'd staked everything on it. When I finally had to give it up as a bad job I lost my mind a little bit, at one point even finding myself in a military recruiter's office. I almost joined the Marines (hard to picture, I know), but very fortunately moved to Montana and started writing poems again instead. Such are the hazards of fiction writing!

Of course I'm older now and a little less naive about writing and its limited powers of replacing life. And what I've found is that this time, writing a novel hasn't taken anything from me except a little time that I wasn't using anyway (the half-an-hour to hour or so before I go to bed each night). I'm still writing poems—not at any breakneck pace, it's true, but at about the same rate as usual when there isn't a larger book project I'm deliberately writing toward—and I even have a little energy for thinking about scholarly matters from time to time. (Just now David Lau's review of terrific-sounding new books by Norma Cole and Andrew Joron in the latest issue of Lana Turner has greatly clarified for me what I was trying to say in my UIC talk about epistemology versus ontology in contemporary poetry—that's grist for another post.)

What consumes life is life: teaching, advising students, administrative duties, being a husband and father, etc. In an interview between Jennifer Moxley (who also has a new book out) and Daniel Bouchard in The Poker #8 a few years back, she speaks of the dilemma of the fact that "language takes up time." "Is the time that it takes to articulate your life—is that a good deal? Should you just not articulate it? You know, is it taking your life away from you?" This follows an arresting exchange and image:
Jennifer: every time you create a narrative, every time you create grammar, syntax, you destroy time.

Dan: You destroy it? Lose it?

Jennifer: Well, you can't get it back.

Dan: But not in the sense of wasted.

Jennifer: No, I wouldn't say wasted. But um ... if you can imagine the image of a human being disintegrating from top to bottom, and, if you're a writer, what you're building up next to you is text, right? So pretty soon you'll be gone and the text will be left. But there's a sense of is that experience or is that something else?
The ancient hubris of poets produces this Faustian bargain: give up some portion of your life to writing, and immortality might be yours. Or who [Time's] spoil of beauty can forbid? / O, none, unless this miracle have might, / That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

Whether or not you write that image, that human image in Moxley's vision, will disintegrate. And the text you stack up in your image supplements that disintegration—more life is not part of the bargain. What you get to keep is only a kind of attentiveness. Or that narcotic that Smith talks about, which Jennifer talks about too: "the space of writing is more interesting than doing anything else. It becomes kind of addictive, it feels more alive, and I think that that's a little bit scary and threatening."

In some ways that's what my novel is about. Just as Severance Songs is about the struggle with beauty, with an[aesth]eth[et]ics, in addition to whatever else it may be about, Miramare is about time and memory, and the way they dissolve into each other when the reader's eye moves across the page, creating the illusion of living more than one life. In that respect it's a form of therapy, but specifically a writer's therapy, which always only has one sort of "cure" in view: restoring the possibility of future writing. This is my path to the next work, which I think will probably be poetry again.

I am in the middle. Not I hope in that narcotic sense, but in a literal sense (I feel myself to be halfway through a first draft) and in Dante's sense, the middle of my way, in which I am necessarily lost, so that I may find it again.

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