Service Economy

George Herbert

“You must sit down and taste my meat,” says Love to his guest in the penultimate line of the final poem of seventeenth-century British poet George Herbert’s collection, The Temple “I don’t think there could be a less polite way of saying that,” writes Aaron Kunin in his little brick of a book concerning this poem, titled, after its subject, Love Three (Wave 2019)“What Love says could be written in a toilet stall,” Kunin notes, yet because of Herbert’s consistency of style, it strikes many readers as sweet. Sweetness “overpowers every other suggestion” (5). It was just about here, five pages in, that I began to feel a desire to write about this extraordinary book. Something about Kunin’s framing of the poem’s underlying aggression got to me. That’s the magic of Love Three. It sneaks up on you, then overpowers you. The relentless, titillating, intellectual pleasure of it. Of candor, of clear, unfashionable, insight, Kunin’s Love Three is a masterpiece. 

The title, Love Three, refers to Herbert’s poem, “Love (3).” The parenthetically caged Arabic numeral in the poem’s title distinguishes it from Herbert’s “Love I” and “Love II,” which come earlier in The Temple. In addition to Herbert’s poem, Kunin’s title also refers to a “third kind of love.” The kind Kunin likes best: neither nice nor nasty, but “nice because it’s nasty” (1). More on that to follow. He opens with a short preface outlining the book’s methodology, which though meant to be helpful I didn’t find particularly descriptive of my reading experience. And it’s kind of bossy. 

A 322-page prose book about an 18-line poem, Love Three moves with a circular logic and strategically uses repetition. Like a lyric poem. Like desire. In patterned echoes earlier quadrants are illuminated in sections to come. Catlike, Love Three worries and toys with its topic. It makes you feel lost and located at once. For this and for so much else, I love it. 

According to Love Three, love is a calculation of domination and submission. Master and servant. These are not social categories but unstable and relational positions between persons (or persons and their personified gods). Or persons and literature (Kunin might say “rhetoric”). Because Herbert’s poem knows this, it becomes for Kunin a key (his word) to understanding his own sexual history. It also illuminates what was misleading in his education about power. “No one ever showed me a way to talk about what was attractive in power,” he writes. “My teachers and friends, who made power seem unsexy, I assume were not into it” (115). Herbert’s “Love (3)” teaches Kunin a truth about power, which is often mystified by being mixed up with ideology. Kunin eroticizes power. Especially, but not only, rhetorical power. Yet, as he states in one of the many assertions that punctuate Love Three: “No human being eroticizes ideology” (115). True. Yet ideologically circumscribed figures most certainly can be and are eroticized. A person may metonymically stand in for power; a person, or a personified emotion, like Love in Herbert’s poem. 

Herbert’s poem helps Kunin think about power. Yet “Herbert’s thing with power is not exactly the same as my thing,” he writes, rejecting, rather unconvincingly, any simple identification with his subject matter. What is this “thing” that is his? Kunin clarifies, “when I put my thing, my human possibility, alongside Herbert’s, I can see a little better. Standing next to each other, we disclose our interests clearly” (308). Not a mirror, but corrective lenses: “[M]y human possibility.” Not what is, but what might be. Not what I know, but what I don’t yet know. Not what I thought I was doing, but what I was actually doing. 

Thinking about the eroticization of power is a central project of Love Three, fulfilled in great measure by an examination of servitude. Upon my second reading I started to count the instances of the word “serve” or “service,” but not being of a systematic character I forgot I was doing this and eventually lost track. I am nevertheless confident in asserting that service comes up a lot. Kunin sees servitude as a kind of power (a Hegelian shadow here, never alluded to). The servant in Herbert’s “Love (3)” doggedly clings to the power of his servitude, his unworthiness, and his degradation, which Kunin interprets this way: “My inferiority is more powerful than your superiority” (57). The disingenuous innocence of the poem’s speaker combines with his final humiliation by Love (denying him his servitude) to rhetorically mirror a catalog of Buster Keatonesque sexual experiments with various forms of humiliation (bondage, pain, golden showers, etc.) in Kunin’s own life. The most satisfying are those that deny Kunin what he most desires: rhetorical power.The powerful erotic experience of being shut up, of having his voice taken away. Given the centrality of the voice to the poet, this is indeed a high order cruelty.[1]Herbert’s poem also fetishizes the denial of other senses: sight in particular: “I cannot look on thee,” or, in Kunin’s critical rephrasing: “my most perverse, inexplicable desire, to be forbidden the sight of your face, the face I most want to see” (271). The face of Love, the face of your Lord and Master. 

Kunin constrasts Herbert’s devotion to serving with John Donne’s competitiveness. Herbert’s speaker wishes to be “as skilled at submitting as [Love] is at dominating,” while Donne “tops from the bottom” (13; 16). He is a “do-me princess” who “tells God how to dominate him” (16). Herbert is content, even pleased, to serve and wait for orders from his master, Love. In several sections of Love Three, Kunin translates the servant’s experience of Love’s mastery as one of being relieved of the responsibility of desire: “You express desire but allow me to remain untainted by desire. You indulge my fear of rejection. You express desire so that I don’t have to” (24). I have no voice, therefore I cannot express anything. “The only one who talks about enjoying this scene is you. Thus you leave me the protection of not wanting you” (43). I keep my distance, both from you and from my own desire. Love takes the rap. The servant gets off. 

T. S. Eliot writes that at “university Herbert was . . . sober and staid in his conduct and diligent in his studies, he was given particular attention by the Master. It was said of him, however, that he was careful to be well, even expensively dressed; and that his attitude toward his fellow undergraduates of a lower social position was distant, if not supercilious” (56). Slight adjective changes could make this a portrait of the Aaron Kunin I met in the 1990s, when he was an undergraduate at Brown University. Herbert’s sense of superiority, according to Eliot, came from his noble family, whereas Kunin’s source was confidence in his intellect as well as a passionate dedication to his own peculiarities. In Love Three he tells a story about how half the kids in his fourth-grade class, when asked to write an essay about “the most interesting person you know,” wrote about him. He attributes this not to his superiority, but to his eccentricity, describing himself as “[a] strange kid who wears a bowler hat and other old-fashioned clothes, isn’t interested in computers, and likes to read out loud and sing” (264). He “recognized no peer” and therefore felt no pressure, nor apparently was he ever bullied, despite being a fine-boned kinky-haired redhead, the weakling-type boy bullies like. I believe him. 

Both George Herbert and Aaron Kunin resemble their mothers. “In George,” Eliot writes, contrasting the poet to his older brother, “of frailer constitution and contemplative mind we seem to find more Magdalen [Herbert].” “We look very much alike,” Kunin tells us of his mother. We are “close in temperament.” And though in his reading of Elias Canetti Kunin writes that “Maternity is the closest thing to absolute power in human experience,” his relationship with his own mother “does not appear to be one of domination and submission” (122; 98). Not like the one between Love and the guest in “Love (3).” 

Kunin’s literary critical voice in Love Three wears the mask of the speaker in Herbert’s poem. A doubling. This first happens when Kunin asks, eleven pages in, “What am I like?” Answer: “I am brutally honest. / I think I am brutally honest. / I think I know what I deserve.” This query is a confession, but also a critical observation: what is the “I” of Herbert’s poem like? What is Aaron Kunin like? At the end of the book this same pronominal doppëlganger tells the reader, “You shouldn’t trust me.” Who is this me? Why shouldn’t we trust him? Well, because he admits that he is “given to complaining about folks called Love.” That sounds like Herbert, a poet who wrote several poems about right and wrong kinds of love, including two early sonnets. And it sounds like Kunin, who uses colloquialisms like “folks,” or “[g]et it while it’s hot,” or “is there a fucking problem,” in exploring the tonal range of Herbert’s poem (3; 31). Caught in this clever conflation I, as reader, feel rhetorically dominated, though I probably would never have used the word “domination” to describe this experience before reading this book. I would have spoken of interest, curiosity, mystery. I might have even spoken of love. 

In this effect, I recognize that Kunin has done something remarkable: he has written a critical work that acts a lot like a lyric poem. Kunin puzzles over who Herbert imagines as the audience for the conversation reported in “Love (3).” “To whom am I telling my story?” he asks in the voice of the poem’s speaker (85). He speculates it could be Herbert’s mother. But why can’t it just be the reader of the poem? Lyric’s triangulated address performs this magic: we read an intimate conversation between an “I” and a “you” and though we are neither the poem allows us to be both. No need for names. The sense that what’s being spoken is happening in real time is another lyric effect. “Sometimes Love speaks in the present,” Kunin asserts, immediately following “Today I seem to be writing ‘Love’ rather than ‘you’” (59; 58). This “I” who is writing “Love” could be Herbert, but reads more compellingly as Kunin. Though we are reading a printed book, the writing is happening “today.” Right now. In the present.  

Another of the delights of Love Three is Kunin’s respectful disagreement with the established critical canon regarding the interpretation of “Love (3).” T. S. Eliot describes the poem as a document of “serenity finally attained” by a “proud and humble man” (82). Ann Pasternak Slater says “Love (3)” is Herbert’s “best poem” at which “Christ serves and man is the undeserving, beloved guest” at the “mystical repast” which is Heaven (xv-vi). Helen Vendler calls it “the most exquisite poem in English expressing the time when faith and hope . . . are dissolved, and pure sweetness returns forever” (24). Stanley Fish says it’s about God and Man being of a single substance (Kunin, 211). It is difficult to accept the deep-breath, I’ve-finally-made-it-to-heaven, ambiance of “Love (3)” implied in these readings after journeying through Kunin’s book. In his hands the poem reveals itself as an erotically-charged intricate calculus of rhetorical domination and submission. The experience described in “Love (3)” bears more resemblance to a very tense first date between two figures who have up to this point only known each other virtually than to a gentle (or gentile) welcoming of a humble servant to the house of his Lord.  

“We don’t need a lot of equipment. Only your body, my body, your imagination, and my fantasy,” Kunin writes, contrasting the economy of Herbert’s poem with the more typical props associated with sexualized power play: “A throne, a crown, collars, cuffs, gags, hoods, frames, cages, devices, pieces of furniture, costumes, leather, metal” (45). Such an exhausting catalog! But in Herbert’s poem, “You and I make power together.” With words. 

There’s also an elegant simplicity to Kunin’s critical method, no need for a fancy theoretical framework: “my secret is that what the poem says is what it’s about,” he writes, dismissing the critics who look for what isn’t there: such as a dormant pun on the word “host” (Stephen Booth) or historically coded sexual meanings (Schoenfeldt). But wait, isn’t Kunin’s reading participating in an “excavation of codes of sex”—in this case contemporary codes—in “Love (3)”? Maybe. But Kunin makes no claims about secondary or hidden meanings to support his interpretation. He never writes: “Love (3)” is a poem about BDSM sex. Because that would be ridiculous. What the poem says is what it’s about: love. And love, according to Kunin, is about domination and submission. But then how does Kunin get from love to sex (the latter of which he excludes from Herbert’s meaning)? “Mainly Love dominates me verbally,” he notes, ventriloquizing Herbert’s speaker. The verbal mastery of the figure of Love in Herbert’s poem equates to Kunin’s sexual triggers. “I find rhetorical power interesting, and even sexually exciting, no matter where it appears,” he admits. 

That love, at least in the tradition of lyric poetry, is about domination and submission, is hard to refute. It’s there in Sapphofor if she flees, soon she will follow . . . even unwilling. “Maybe if critics were honest they would say that they don’t like love; they like equality,” writes Kunin. He wonders whether our culture, and its literary tradition, hates women, and therefore “no matter how the poet feels, the tradition has only tools of hate.” I hear in these words echoes of Audre Lorde: The Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Should we, therefore, torch the library? If “love is to be salvaged,” Kunin wonders, then perhaps “its tradition might have to be cut loose” (100-101). That might be a solution. Though poems about equality may serve utopian visions, they will not be an honest account of desire. I like Kunin’s approach better: let’s quit lying to ourselves about love. 

Though Herbert’s “Love (3)” is a seventeenth-century poem, the kind of love it describes was invented in eleventh-century Provence. An erotic love modelled on the economic relationship between a vassal and his lord: “A lover is obedient; when he is completely in love, he performs his beloved’s pleasure eagerly and promptly,” says the narrator in Chrétien de Troyes’s the Knight of the Cart, a twelfth-century tale which stars the tradition’s greatest adherent to this, as C. S. Lewis called it, “religion” of love: Lancelot of the Lake. In the Knight of the Cart he slices his hands and feet to bits crossing the sword bridge to reach an imprisoned queen Guinevere, after which she upbraids him for having hesitated for two seconds before humiliating himself for her sake by climbing into a cart used to transport the lowest scum of the town. When the queen orders Lancelot to “halt” in the midst of a sword fight, even when his opponent strikes him with “all his force,” “Lancelot [does] not stir” (216). At the behest of the queen he becomes an object, a piece of furniture. The young Kunin displayed something like Lancelot’s indifference to his physical well-being in an invented game: lying under a pile of bean bags “so that I couldn’t see, breathe, or move,” while his sisters “tried to balance on top, until they slid off” (52). A game which he finds “disturbingly close to fantasies about human furniture that [he] entertained later in life” (53). 

This Medieval love tradition is filled with blood-letting and humiliation. The feminization of the male body. It was so powerful a cultural force that the author of the thirteen-century Queste del Saint Graal transferred this secular love into a sacred quest. That book recounts many acts of extreme male masochism in the search for God’s grace and forgiveness. The feudalization of love turned what had been in the classical world a “madness” into an intricate game of domination and submission. This is what is often sanitized into the mannerly rituals of what we call “courtly love,” which has been critiqued for putting women on a pedestal. It may also have been a highly elaborate and erotically compelling way to experiment with desecrating the male body. At least in books. 

Power play is usually represented as humorless, but the absurd extremes in these medieval tales can often be quite funny. That may be the historical distance. In Love Three Kunin creates a similar paradox. Even when he’s writing about deadly sexual experiments, there’s humor. It’s the deadpan humor of socially inappropriate honesty. Kunin’s trial-and-error quest to enact his sexual fantasies can serve to illustrate, by analogy, the refinements of non-erotic aesthetic taste. If there is such a thing. He tells us that his first experiences with masturbation, for example, were not “as the literature described” (referring to a book on sexual development his parent’s owned). He shares with us his unique pornography: personal ads, a French magazine, the Marquis de Sade. “The parts about bondage and torture were interesting to me but I was indifferent to the vanilla sex acts, disturbed by the mutilation, confused by the emphasis on blasphemy, and turned off by the scenes with shit” (145). This frank catalog illustrates the dangers of unedited aesthetic terrain. De Sade’s catholic inclusion of every perversion, while intended to leave no reader unoffended, is tedious and flattening in extremis. Such are the dangers of porn: in those woods you are as likely to stumble upon scenes that destroy your excitement as those that serve it. The same may be said of anthologies of poems. 

Elsewhere Kunin calls himself “intuitive, uncontrolled, confused” (74). A childhood memory about unthinkingly stripping off his bathing suit in view of “other kids” after swimming in a creek at day camp seems to affirm this self-characterization. The natural thing to do, to remove the wet suit, was socially inappropriate. He exposed himself. It was humiliating. But Kunin is grateful that, as an adult, he has “learned to eroticize humiliation.” This ability, he writes, “has enriched [his] life” (200). This “intuitive, uncontrolled, confused” writer complains that he’s “never learned to achieve” a consistency of style (273). Perhaps he doesn’t want to, liking the “effects made possible by inconsistency” (5). A consistency of style such as Herbert’s “can accommodate basically any material,” Kunin claims. Given the breadth of material Kunin accommodates in Love Three, I cannot take this plaint too seriously. 

Kunin’s book has led me to realize how extraordinarily ill-served George Herbert has been by poetry anthologies. “Easter Wings” and “The Altar.” That is usually it. To my delight, Kunin includes readings of several Herbert poems in addition to “Love (3),” including “The Quidditie,” “The Agonie,” “The Flower,” “Superliminare,” “Longing,” “Dialogue,” “Rest,” “The Forerunners,” “The Sacrifice,”  “The Glance,” “Thanksgiving,” “The Quip,” and “Vertue.” Many of his readings, such as that of “The Flower,” provide evidence that Herbert viewed love and power as one and the same, supporting Kunin’s central thesis about “Love (3).” But some are used to make other points. For example, Kunin shows how “The Quidditie” uses a series of negations to define poetry. It is not “the world,” but rather, “makes a hole in the world through which you go somewhere else” (275). For Herbert, that “somewhere else” is with his God (277). This concept of a “hole in the world” is one of the finest descriptions I’ve read of what great poems do. Though I might describe the “somewhere else” differently than Herbert, I recognize the experience of going there in both the writing and reading of poems. 

In Herbert as a devotional Christian poet, Love Three isn’t particularly interested. Though a Christian reading of “Love (3)” is hard to ignore, Kunin manages it, and even pushes against it. “You know, it just occurred to me,” he tells us in another fine instance of lyric presentness, “what’s great about calling Herbert’s book The Temple is that the temple in question could be a place of worship for practically any religion,” he writes. “If anything, ‘temple’ has a slightly Jewish flavor” (188). Kunin asserts that in “Love (3)” Herbert’s language “doesn’t tend to make biblical or ecclesiastical allusions” (189). “[D]oesn’t tend” is very hedgy. As Kunin well knows, because Vendler points it out, a passage from Luke 13:37 is the biblical source: “Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching . . . he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them” (Invisible 86n11). But Kunin insists, as if defending the honor of his subject, that Herbert didn’t want to make his poem “too Christian.” Not even the obvious equation, God is Love, is at work here according to Kunin, who facetiously asks, “But where is god in this poem?” No matter. There are plenty of strictly Christian readings of “Love (3)” out there for those who need them. Kunin is doing something else. 

Love Three is a book that only he could have written. It is the book he was born to write. A book about a seventeenth-century poem in which the personification of Love commands a poet who feels “guiltie of dust and sinne” to “taste” his meat. A book about a poem in which Kunin sees a list of his own “sexual preferences, interests, fantasies, and limits,” as if Herbert had “plagiarized by anticipation” Kunin’s “defense of desiring humiliation.” A poem which aids Kunin in making the argument that his particular sexual preference is not only a choice, but the “best choice” (158). A poem in which, Kunin finishes by pointing out, somewhat cagily, “No one says love . . .” and “No one says, ‘I love you’” (166). Kunin also uses the occasion of writing about “Love (3)” to insert piquant micro essays on other topics: such as the humanities (a treasure no one wants), politics (not interesting), Canetti (swaps sex for food), and courtesy manuals (wrong but better than nothing). 

George Herbert’s poem is for Kunin what Roland Barthes called a texte d’appui. One of those “texts we always seem to be in conversation with, whether directly or indirectly; the texts that enable us to say or write anything at all” (Briggs, This Little Art 38). As my thoughts were provoked and my desires coaxed from what I read in Love Three, Kunin’s book started to become such a text for me. I’ve been reading Kunin’s writing with admiration for a long time now, but this is the first book of his that’s done that to me. 


[1]  For a different, albeit still sexualized, take on the voice and the poet see my essay “A Deeper Older O: The Oral (Sex) Tradition (in Poetry).”

Works Cited

Briggs, Kate. This Little Art. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017.  

Eliot, T. S. George Herbert. In British Writers and Their Work No. 4. Eds. Dobrée and Robinson. U of Nebraska P, 1964.

Herbert, George. The Complete English Works. Ed. Ann Pasternak Slater. Knopf, 1995.

Kunin, Aaron: Love Three. Wave, 2019.

The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes.Translated by David Stains. Indiana UP, 1990.

Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love. Oxford Up, 1958.

Vendler, Helen. Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman and Ashbery. Princeton UP, 2005.

Vendler, Helen. The Poetry of George Herbert. Harvard UP, 1975.

That Obscure Object

“Thumbed from below we bend at the knees in an ugly
Soulless wobble . . .”

Giraffe_portraitThese lines comes from my poem “The Various Silences Lie in Shadow.” I chose to include this poem as part of my reading in Farmington, Maine—though it is difficult to read—because of this collapsing giraffe, whom I shall call “Wobbly” (in light of my recent post). I had noticed Wobbly when reconnoitering the venue: a local bookstore filled with kids’ books, toys, puzzles, rubber dinosaurs, and other cool stuff. Wobbly Giraffe is a representative of the exact object I had in mind when I wrote “Thumbed from below we bend at the knees in an ugly / Soulless wobble . . .”  To see Wobbly do just this, view his star turn here.

When I wrote these lines I believed I was creating a clear image, and that the reference to “thumbing from below” was enough to lead any reader to a memory of this common, strangely cruel, toy. But, when driving back to Orono from Farmington, Steve told me that, until he saw me use Wobbly as a prop during my reading (adding humor to a distinctly unfunny poem) he had no idea what I was getting at. The image was obscure. Which leads me to wonder, how many other “clear images” have I written with nary more than a nod to some past sense-experience with an object now totally obscure?

Without the experience of this object, how might a reader understand what it means to be “thumbed from below”? Could it be read as making reference to Hart Crane’s lines in “Chaplinesque”?

Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,

Why do we locate social acceptance and aesthetic judgment in the thumb? Thumbs up, thumbs down. To thumb one’s nose at something or someone. Why are our opposable thumbs also oppositional?

Moxley_UMF_2015-03-05_Elf
At Devaney Doak and Garrett Booksellers.

 

A Friend in Boston

Me and Dan in front of his new home in Arlington
Me and Dan in front of his old place in Somerville

How stunning to realize, as I begin to think about the poetic company that Dan Bouchard has afforded me, that he and I have been writing to each other for twenty years! When we began our correspondence, I was living in Providence, he in Boston. Lee Ann Brown, whom he had looked up following a tip from Lyn Hejinian, introduced us. A little while later we met for a second time at an after-poetry-reading party at Peter (Gizzi) and Liz’s (Willis). Because they lived across the street from Steve and me, it was easy to invite Dan up to our apartment and give him a bunch of Impercipients. I had put together six issues to date; Dan’s work would appear in the seventh.

The oldest letter I can find from Dan is dated May 15, 1995. “It’s been nearly a month since we spoke on the phone,” he says, “I wanted (finally) to write something to let you know I was serious in suggesting a correspondence.” This was the pre-Social Media equivalent of a “friend request.” (At the time, most of us didn’t even have email.) That first letter also mentions that “a year ago to the week” he had finished his MA at Temple and left Philadelphia. I too had finished a graduate degree the previous year, my MFA from Brown. We were in that precarious post-graduate-school phase, trying to figure out how to be poets and continue to participate in a dialogue about poetry. I had resolved to stop writing for a solid year and concentrate on reading instead. Starting a correspondence with Dan was propitious, for if his letters to me were various in material and method—typed, handwritten, on anything from fine stationery to lined notebook paper—they were consistent in their record of Dan’s passion for reading. In that first letter he wrote that, due to moving apartments, his “Tenuous (indeed, strenuous!) reading habits” had been “shattered.” Despite which fact he includes a lengthy discussion of Oppen’s work and mentions reading Silliman’s New Sentence, in addition to autobiographies of “Big” Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. These last choices attest to Dan’s interest in American labor history. This interest led him to interrogate something he’d just heard about in reference to writers like Philip Levine called “work poetry”: “I was in Philadelphia last weekend and had the chance to see many students from the Temple program. Two talked with me about what they called “work poetry . . . [t]he inflection of their voice[s] when saying “work poetry” made it sound like a genre, if not a movement, and I was hesitant to suggest that maybe it’s poetry with ‘work’ as a subject matter.” I love the clarity of this insight. It is the sort of “emperor’s new clothes” observation that Dan excels at. I can’t say how many times I’ve been agonizing over some poetry-world kerfuffle only to have Dan cut right through the nonsense.

Though I didn’t often make copies of my letters, [Read more…]

Poems of Christmas

Unicef-inspired ornaments from my childhood (see "Mother Night")
Unicef-inspired ornaments from my childhood

George Oppen sent me to Thomas Hardy. It was these lines, from “Of Being Numerous”:

. . . But who escapes
Death

Among these riders
Of the subway,

They know
By now as I know

Failure and the guilt
Of failure.
As in Hardy’s poem of Christmas . . .

“As in Hardy’s poem of Christmas.” Oppen’s casual reference punctuates a none-too-casual confession: We all know, the “they” and the “I,” both “failure” and the guilt of it. Crushing. I heard and read these lines many times before I sought out Hardy’s “poem of Christmas.” But the thing is, Hardy wrote many poems of Christmas, all little masterpieces of failure and its guilt. Hardy’s failure lies in his inability to have faith without doubt. His Spinner of the Years—as he calls that nameless, indifferent force that determines all in “The Convergence of the Twain”—is indeed sinister. Yet Hardy is no nihilist. Otherwise, there’s no accounting for the enormous work he put into telling stories of the impoverished and ill-fated. If, as Tess says, “all is vanity,” then why bother caring about another’s misery?

The Hardy Christmas poem Oppen refers to is, of course, “The Oxen.” Here’s Oppen’s retelling of it [Read more…]

Author Function

Author_Name_Tag_Miami_International_BookfairBrowsing bookstalls at the Miami International Book Fair I blow the dust off a tempting copy of a Spinoza Dictionary. Too expensive. I turn to the bookseller, a wizened man with white hair jutting from the sides of his head. “You run a local shop?” “Yes.” I feel so grateful to see old books among the many stalls selling shiny new “bestseller-style” hardbacks. I exchange a few niceties with the bookseller, who is a bit standoffish until he notices the name tag hanging around my neck. “Oh, you’re an author,” he says, suddenly attentive. “Yes, I suppose I am.” As I move on to the next stall, he stops me. “Wait, just wait a minute,” he says, “I want to write down your name. Just in case.”

At the Miami International Book Fair, the “Author Function” hung awkwardly around the neck of the living poet. It swung by a cord and served as a magic key. It let her into the Author’s Lounge, where there was free coffee and vats of Cajun food, printers, posturing, none-to-subtle name tag gawking, and “who’s who” gossip. Young smiling volunteers treated anyone with an author’s name tag like royalty. After events authors were lead to outdoor tables in order to sign books for adoring fans. This part of the “author” charade deflated rather awkwardly as, following our event, the other poets and I stood ignored next to our “wares.” No one was buying, or even browsing. The well-meaning volunteer asked us to sign one book each. Just in case.

If, in Backyard Carmen, I wrote that the idea of “audience” makes me uncomfortable, the whole charade surrounding the “grandiosity of authors” just makes me embarrassed. I realize that the Miami Book Fair generously hopes to promote literary culture in part by treating authors as stars—but as Foucault articulated, the Author Function does not come about by an act of “spontaneous attribution”— such as hanging a tag with the word “author” around the neck of a poet.

Which brings up another question: is a poet an author? Authors have authority, but do poets? The Author Function is necessary in order to place works of literature within “juridical and institutional systems” (Foucault again). In other words: to know who to hold accountable or to accuse. Is this why I prefer some distance from the site of anyone reading my work? As if I—the flesh and blood person—fear I’ll be held accountable for the spectral self, the uncanny “function,” which somehow managed to write poems and then point the finger at me . . .

“What do you mean by poet?” the tribunal of the underworld asks Orpheus when he claims he’s a poet, not a writer. “Écrire sans être écrivain,” he replies. “To write without being a writer.” Or, I would add, an author.

Backyard Carmen

Not long ago, Steve and I were invited to join a taskforce charged with growing the audience for the Metropolitan Live in HD opera broadcasts at the Collins Center for the Arts, UMaine’s largest performing arts venue. We are, sadly, the youngest members of this taskforce by some years. In addition to being primarily drawn from the senior set, the typical audience for the Met Live in HD amounts to about a hundred people, which not only looks scant in an auditorium of 1,500 seats, but has the director threatening to cancel the broadcasts altogether—a worrisome prospect to those of us who regularly attend. The largest audience was 270, for a broadcast of Carmen with Elīna Garanča in 2010.

Callas_CarmenSaturday November first the Met is broadcasting Carmen again, this time with the Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili. Steve, in hopes of interesting the students taking his course on the Lover’s Discourse, spent some time finding alluring YouTube clips from Carmen, including a wonderful Muppet’s sound-poem version of the Habenera. From his report, few students seemed moved to interrupt nursing Halloween hangovers with initiation into this alien art form. All this Carmen talk reminded of my own history with Georges Bizet’s classic, which was my first exposure to opera, enhanced by a Maria Callas recording given to me by my mother. As I wrote in The Middle Room: [Read more…]