wash your skeleton every day
There is a species of fire ant in the Namibian desert that can only emerge from beneath its rock for eight minutes a day, at a precise hour, without burning to death on the broiling sand. If it does not emerge for those eight minutes, it starves. If it forages too long, it overheats and dies. Like those ants, I am about to emerge from beneath my own rock for 1000 words, knowing I need to speak as my own form of sustenance yet hoping that I don’t overstate my welcome, lest I burn up by my own words. But an important question has been put forth: what is the role of the poetic avant-garde, and what are my particular practices as someone engaged with it?
When writing any poem, especially one aligned with the avant-garde, I always negotiate the question of accessibility. Some concerns I have are: Am I communicating “something”? Am I disrupting discursive expectations enough to revitalize language? Am I speaking not just about things but from within them, enacting how language itself operates as it apprehends those things? Am I engaged not so much in writing to others or myself or even about the world, but actually in an attentiveness practice itself?
I would answer yes to all these—at least in terms of what I attempt. I should note that an avant-garde poet should not consciously exclude certain non-experimental practices (it is not a binary pitting of “us” against “them”). Avant-garde practice has more to do with allowing language itself to guide not only how something is said but what is said. Jack Spicer’s framework of tuning the psychic radio to receive “messages” from Martians is helpful (2). While I’ve never conversed with Martians, my practice is a continual letting go of self, and in the process, of expectations—of subject, theme, language practices, even self-representation. If a poem demands a “traditional” form, structure, or theme, I owe it to myself, to the poem—and to the avant-garde—to write it. Few things bother me as much as contemporary poems that are avant-garde for the sake of being avant-garde. There is a plethora of work available that says absolutely nothing, that is elusive and unavailable for the sake of experiment. Poetry is not an “us” and a “them” (experimentation vs. tradition). There is no self and other, only the unending reciprocity between apparent contradictions that are complementary rather than contradictory. Whitman, echoing Wordsworth, understood this reciprocity, saying, “There was a child went forth every day, / And the first object he looked upon . . . that object he became” (138).
Here, and in light of the above, “Am I engaged not so much in writing to others or myself or even about the world, but actually in an attentiveness practice itself?” an interesting story comes to mind. Twenty years ago, I heard composition theorist, James Moffett, relate his early meetings with his spiritual teacher Swami Sivalingam. Moffett was respondent to a panel about using meditation to develop deeper pathways into writing, expressing apprehensiveness, similar to my own, regarding too great an emphasis on the “effects” of either meditation or writing, on the implicit hierarchies of seeing one in service to the other. In Moffett’s story, when his teacher asked what he spent most of his time doing, Moffet replied, “writing.” “That’s good,” Swami Sivalingam responded, adding, “It will help deepen your concentration for meditation” (Moffett).
This story turns hierarchies inside out. The irony of Swami Sivalingam’s response is to say that whatever we do, we should do with attention and not to achieve some particular outcome. If there’s an “outcome” (even if that outcome is to be “avant-garde”), we have already lost the most radical perception of all—namely, that there is no division between inside and outside, between language and the world.
Often I feel that the most important social and political act of all—poetic or otherwise—is to go to your room and meditate. Vallejo expresses this transparency beautifully: “For several days, I have felt an exuberant, political need / to love, to kiss affection on its two cheeks” (179).
What is essential to my practice is to harmonize my inner and outer lives, to thin the membrane between my consciousness and the world around me. Sometimes this transparency might include marching against an unjust war or the excesses of Wall Street. Other times, it might entail writing a political poem with a “message.” Sometimes, it involves a radical immersion into language, creating a new discourse that realigns the nerve ganglia and viscera of myself and my readers, to present a discourse closer to a mantric “seed-sound-now”—to coin a term—of sound, rhythm, and silence. Sometimes it includes all of these. There is no boundary between our social and private selves.
The early Surrealists understood this—one reason my avant-garde practice is rooted in that tradition. Surrealism exists, dynamically, on a continuum between spiritual transformation and social activism, each powerfully influencing the other. In as much as Surrealism aims to investigate—and transform—consciousness and, in tandem, revolutionize society, its principal focus is on both the transformative aspect of artistic expression upon culture and on the effect of the practice of creative composition itself upon the artist (a sort of hermetic meditation). As André Breton has noted in an interview with Roger Vitrac, which appeared in 1923, “Poetry? It isn’t where you think. It exists outside of words, of style, etc.” (qtd. in Cauvin xviii). Where, then, is the domain of poetry if not in words? “Poetry [for the Surrealists] is not art,” argues Jean-Pierre Cauvin in “The Poethics of André Breton,” “but life itself, life as a constant adventure shepherded by chance, love, and liberty” (xvii.).
Remember this gem of inner transformation from—paradoxically—one of Vallejo’s great socio-political poems, beginning “Let the millionaire go naked,” where he advises, “wash your skeleton every day” (193-95).
I have long sensed a problem in the contemporary avant-garde—a solipsism in which many poets write either a poetry void of “the world of the ten thousand things” and/or a poem fearing the emotional charge of language. I can trace my own biases. I cut my teeth in the 1970s and 1980s on two core streams, falling under the spell of the (traditional?) Chinese poets of antiquity and (experimental?) world Surrealism(s), particularly Spanish and Latin American poets expressing that great emotional force Lorca calls the duende (91-103).
Contemporary poetry’s reorientation in the 1980s toward literary theory has had both a profoundly helpful yet harmful impact. The American avant-garde, under the influence of post-structuralism, rightly called into question premises of contemporary Romanticism, yet we now have a younger generation of poets brought up on an avant-garde theory-based poetry dominated largely by ideas, irony, and language for the sake of language. In locating itself within the axis of language as its “subject,” much contemporary verse simultaneously lacks the ability to look as much to the world of things as it does to the corruption, eruption, and dysplasia of discourse.
Gary Snyder has said that as a poet he “hold[s] the most archaic values on earth . . . the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe” (3). One need not move to the Sierras like Snyder to practice these. One need not don the buckskins, say, of William Everson to call forth the common work of the tribe. One need not meditate in an ashram eight hours a day to practice the nondualism Swami Sivalingam describes. I have heard some younger poets critiquing the “poet-as-shaman” construction, and—in some cases—rightly so. Still, one need not be a shaman to hold such values, which I share with Snyder. The role of my own avant-garde work is to engage writing as first and foremost an attentiveness practice that leads me where it must (even if it leads me through “the terrifying initiation and rebirth” of my psyche) and to delve into language as one way to thin the membrane between all binary constructions, to allow the power of the Word to evoke worlds, some of which are yet unseen, but—equally so—to describe the world of the more-deeply seen: whether that entails the preening patterns and amorous cries of a Kaleega pheasant, the chemical properties of salt as it meets the enzymes in the human digestive tract, or the feeding habits of the fire ants of Namibia. My avant-garde practice is to chronicle the world (not just aporias of language), like the poets of the Chinese T’ang Dynasty, while simultaneously delving into the unconscious as one way to understand not only oneself but also the deeper workings of the world, for it is within the transparency between self and other where one meets the world on its own terms. The world is alive, and by engaging in a poetic practice of conjuring that life, the poet continuously revitalizes both language and the imagination. In his great one-line poem, “Death,” the early Japanese Dadaist, Takahashi Shinkichi, writes, “Nobody has ever died” (345). Certainly. For we all live inside one another, just as the world lives inside us, just as we live inside the continuous presence of the poem.
Cauvin, Jean-Pierre. “Introduction: The Poethics of André Breton.” Poems of André Breton: A Bilingual Anthology. Ed. and trans. Jean-Pierre Cauvin and Mary Ann Caws. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982. xvii-xxxviii.
Lorca, Federico García. “Theory and Function of the Duende.” Trans. J.L. Gili. The Poetics of the New American Poetry. Eds. Donald Allen and Warren Tallman. New York: Grove Press, 1973. 91-103.
Moffet, James. Respondent to panel presentation: “Spiritual Sites of Composing.” Annual Conference on College Composition and Communication. Cincinnati, Ohio, March 21, 1992.
Snyder, Gary. The Real Work: Interviews & Talks, 1964-1979. Ed. Scott McLean. New York: New Directions, 1980.
Spicer, Jack. The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer. Ed. Peter Gizzi. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.
Takahashi, Shinkichi. “Death.” Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature. Ed. Ueda Makoto. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983.
Vallejo, César. The Complete Posthumous Poetry. Trans. Clayton Eshleman and José Rubia Barcia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Malcom Cowley. Viking Press, 1959. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.