Sunday, October 4, 2020


 A query came my way recently which asked a perennial question from the crowd that doesn't "get" poetry: why do people bother to write boring poetry? The question had a tangible snorting contempt to it. For him, I'd wager that he finds all poetry dull, crushingly so. But my answer was this: 

Why does anyone make boring art, since you’re asking. The poets who write boring verse are most of the people who fancy themselves word slingers of that sort—quantity diminishes quality. It seems that most of the poems one comes across from new poets in whatever forum—magazine, open reading, workshop, high school newspaper, university press— are pretty much eccentric minds with pedestrian sense of language application who want to capture big ideas, big emotions and big spiritual concepts in pathetically clunky sentences , often choking their best ideas to death with overworked metaphors , unmusical similes and a fatal lack of self awareness as to whether what they spend so much time writing is something an actual reader beyond their circle of friends might want to read. We also suffer from the tone deaf experimenters who want to be abstract, avant garde and boldly innovative who haven’t the slightest idea of how to be interesting in an opaque way. John Ashbery, Bob Perleman, Leslie Scalapino, Gertrude Stein—they were hard to understand as poets go, but they were lively , innovative and striking in their styles and and habits of phrase making, and they are the exceptions to the idea that most avant gard poetry, as such, is abstract for its own sake and therefore useless and a grind. Consider also that there are bored and there fore boring readers of poetry who render judgements that typically amount to “meh”. These folks are a species of glum Gusses and Gussies who might as well be flipping the TV channels .


Some else asked me a not unreasonable question, was Norman Mailer a misogynists? Mailer was obsessed with a notion of heterosexual masculinity, culled from his idealization of Hemingway and especially D. H. Lawrence. His writings on the subject are fascinating , and his assertions and literary criticism in his polemic “The Prisoner of Sex” are often brilliant and on point as he takes on feminist theories, but with all the force and grace the prose provides, Mailer insisted women take a secondary position in society and in all social relations, secondary to men. He would recount that his nay saying and the insults and violent fantasies were expressions of respect rather than contempt, and perhaps that is what he honestly thought, consciously, he was doing. 

All said, though, Mailer seemed rather to be trying to work some matters out in both his social and philosophical ideas, and in his fiction. His attitude regarding the role women play in is a conception of a reality where every player is on an existential path of self-definition constantly prefers the experience and success of the male over the female, with accompanying rationalizations that the advance of women toward an equal social and political status upsets the spiritual ecology . The only thing I can take away from that attitude, expressed and refined for decades, is an active contempt for women, misogyny when all is said.Joyce Carol Oates has some wonderful essays on Mailer that are worth seeking out on this man and his relationship to womankind. Mailer was a writer of large gifts and frequent genius who had issues that make appreciating his best work forever problematic.


Someone was curious enough to ask me who I thought would win in a debate, right wing pundit Ben Shapiro, or linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky. I sought a responsible tone when I responded like so: We will have to be fair in this theoretical context and add we are imagining a younger Chomsky against Shapiro. Shapiro is bright and quick, of course, but he is an inch deep on most issues and tries to distract opponents with a bunch of hypotheticals that are often effective against less skilled debaters. The master of this technique, the presenter of the gratuitous supposition and linguistic trickery was William F. Buckley, godfather of the New Right and longtime host of the debate program firing line. There is an episode of Firing Line on YouTube where Chomsky is the guest, the subject of discussion being US foreign policy in South East Asia. 

Buckley had seriously under estimated Chomsky and his arsenal of techniques to undermine the famed linguist were to no avail; Chomsky is a scholar of the first rank and had thoroughly studied the subject at hand from historical, economic and cultural perspectives, and blended the data in cogent analysis. Chomsky at several points had to correct Buckley as to the facts of the matter at hand. If this were a prize fight, Chomsky would have knocked Buckley out in the first round. Buckley was visibly pissed at having been bested on his own show and for the cameras invited Chomsky back for another discussion. But that invitation was never sent. Sharpiro, remember, is no where near Buckley’s weight division nor skill (to extend the boxing metaphor) . Shapiro going up against Chomsky in a battle of the minds wouldn’t be debate; it would be a human sacrifice.

The Buckley-Chomsky debate can be seen it its entirety on You Tube.


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