Thursday, August 25, 2005


I know this is not a political blog, but sometimes there is a moment of such beauty and inspired genius that I can't help but pass on the aesthetic moment for everyone else to cherish.

Bill Moyer, 73, wears a "Bullshit Protector" flap over his ear while President George W. Bush addresses the Veterans of Foreign Wars. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)

Thursday, August 18, 2005


Relativism with regard to truth seems to be a winning notion these days, one that is hard to deny as the grand narrative of the past splinters.

However, a disingenuousness ploy to pawn something off as real that clearly isn't real is offensive because there is a pretense of veracity as non-fiction. When the context is notably a fiction, like with Michael Earl Craig's work (see my review), invoking the historical real brings the intersection of the historical real and the pointedly imagined space of the writer into relief.

Much of this issue reminds me of the discussion that Harry Frankfurt provides in his book On Bullshit. Frankfurt bemoans the loss of the idea of truth. He feels the truth is ascertainable (even though it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to get at without some complication). He believes the truth is ascertainable because there is a real world that behaves in a certain way that has clear causes and effects. People's interpretations of these events make it difficult to ascertain truth.

The problem he has with bullshit as (he tries to define it) is that bullshitters have no regard for the difficulty of getting at the truth. They tend to offer catch-all statements like "it's all story-telling" in an attempt to save face or curry favor. Advertising and politics are currently hotbeds of such rhetoric. Nothing is said without a nod to how it will be perceived, truth be damned!

For Frankfurt, bullshitting is different than lying. To lie one must have a notion of the truth and then avoid it. Bullshitting begins with the premise that anything goes as long one plays a savvy public relations game.

The interesting part of Frankfurt's book is the question he poses about why bullshit is more tolerated than lying when, in fact, bullshitting is perhaps erodes the public trust more.

Nowhere is there a better example of this than the condemnation of Bill Clinton for "lying" about having sex with Monica Lewinsky while George Bush II's declarations about Niger's uranium enrichment program and IRaq's movement towards nuclear weapons were made to sell the war and probably were not regarded as "truthful" by many intelligence officials. However, they played because they would sell well. This bullshit (as Frankfurt would define it) is not condemned (at least intitially by most and even now by many).

What ramifications does all this have for fiction or poetry? Does infusing a fictional world with elements of the real poison our attempts to get at a difficult truth?

Perhaps, but because it does not try to portray itself as verifiable, there is no deliberate intent to misrepresent. The richness that the fictional interspresed with the historically real can be observed in the way it forces a reader to contemplate the counterfactual (much the way Philip Roth does in The Plot Against America.

I have always been interested in how the surrealists have dealt with history. Most tend to invoke mythical places out of it, like Craig. Most stop short of invoking the historical real because the effect can be subtly political without seeming to hold true to the facts. In short, their work seems flippant (Aimé Cesaire an exception here).

The real value in invoking the historical real within a pointedly fictional realm is to engage with the counterfactual, to contemplate what the world might have looked like if inserted into a different context. I think this is always useful in establishing perspective on the past as well as the future, perspective on the place where you live now and the place one grew up, for example.

This "alternative worlds" view of the present and the past gets panned for being flaky. [Craig seems to resist it because bringing the serious historical real undermines the playful tone of his work.] The bias against flakiness is hard to overcome (even though this criticism is a lot like criticizing Fauvism for depicting a brown sun). Something that is perceived to be addled and dreamy has no business daring even to encroach on the serious real. Somehow, this is an aesthetic breach. Taking it on is risking something. For all that Craig does risk, he does not venture this far, presumably due to his disregard for the importance of history.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Planet of the Apes Meets A.R. Ammons

Today I watched the original Planet of The Apes with the kids. It reminded me of how writers in the 70’s, like Rod Serling, were willing to take on such heady stuff (even as Charlton Heston warns Julius, more than a bit comically, to “never trust anyone over 30.” Ah, so sweet. Next week our family film festival will feature True Grit, the original Star Wars and Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson. Good, strong, honest 70’s fare. The only fallout of the viewing is that my kids were intoning, “Get your paws off me, you damn, dirty apes” all night. I hope the little one doesn’t use that on his kindergarten teacher tomorrow.

I love the “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” scene during the trial. Can anyone find a t-shirt with that on it anymore? News Flash: Still available on eBay for $12.99

The 70’s were the age of self-indulgence, yes, but also a much more ponderous time. The 24-hour news cycle had not intruded yet. I can remember honestly poring over the concept of goodness after the week’s Little House on the Prairie episode. Such naïvete is what the 70’s are despised for these days. Why in that age even Charlton Heston could stand revealed as a hero. How my kids will be devastated when they learn what happens to him later.

Ammons in The Selected reminds me of this kind of intrepid spirit to take on the imponderables. Ammons holds up his galactic perspective of nature for our perusal. I remember reading “Gravelly Run” for the first time and having that feeling of the top of your head being taken off, that feeling which, when it does still happen years later, provides satisfaction even though it is much rarer. The surprising details in the line that Shawn Pittard quotes from is the mention of the “algal hair,” and the “shoulders” of the highway bridge, a blunt attempt to anthropomorphize nature. There is something deeply satisfying for me (and perhaps all readers) to see humanity reflected in nature.

In the end, though, nature is sealed off from the speaker and his gaze “so I look and reflect, but the air’s glass / jail seals each thing in its entity.” The realm of the human and the realm of nature are separate. Philosophy is futile. The only answer one is going to find is to keep moving (which leads us to Mark Strand’s “Reasons For Moving,” the real juggernaut from that age in my opinion . . . the one poem, more than any other, that influenced me to write poems). Here Ammons is of the “Natural Prozac” school. Don’t think about the futility and it can’t get you down. I wonder if such an attitude is still recognized as commendable.

the poem of ammons I’ve always admired, though it is never as often anthologized as “Gravelly Run” or “Corson’s Inlet” is “Mansion.”


So it came time

for me to cede myself
and I chose
the wind
to be delivered to

The wind was glad
and said it needed all
the body
it could get
to show its motions with

and wanted to know
willingly as I hoped it would
if it could do
something in return
to show its gratitude

When the tree of my bones
rises from the skin I said
come and whirlwinding
stroll my dust
around the plain

so I can see
how the ocotillo does
and how saguaro-wren is
and when you fall
with evening

fall with me here
where we can watch
the closing up of day
and think how morning breaks

The wind shows gratitude. An elemental force personified. If only all interactions with the big things of nature could be so magical. I suppose the lack of this kind of thing is what I was harping on the other day with Gary Snyder. Obviously, this flight of fancy is more romantic than the level-headed observations that Ammons usually makes in his poems (and Snyder makes virtually all the time). I think it may be necessary and important to point out that Ammons is interacting with nature in this poem (even though it is interaction of a more hypothetical nature). This may lead him to personify nature in order to facilitate this interaction in his poem. So many of his others he merely plays the witness and pontificates about man’s place in nature. Can we get back to it? Can we even get back to the 70’s (when the back-to-the-landers were prevalent)? What makes Ammons so sweet is that he raises this question, a question that we, now, have resoundingly answered with man’s place is in nature, mucking around in it. Why just last week I saw a bunch of simians . . . or were they my arboreal cousins trying to withhold the knowledge from me that they were my forebears?