Toward a more Combative and Passionate Reading of Poems
I am going to use combative here in the sense of Jacob wrestling with the angel. All night, he stands locked in with the angel until the dawn approaches. The angel must depart. Jacob refuses to let the angel go until he has received the full blessing of heaven. The blessing is given, the angel breaks Jacob’s hip before departing as a sort of “sign” of both blessing and combat, and afterwards, nothing is the same. This is true combat, true grappling. I tell you the point of any deep reading is contained both in the idea of not letting go until you have received the blessing, and also, in being marked with the signs of combat—wounded and scarred in the best sense of those words. This is beyond effort. Jacob was naked. He brought no weapons or defensive armor to the match. If he was oiled up, it was only with his own sweat. What do I mean beyond effort? Effort implies forcing yourself, going through the motions, acting as if this was a drag. No man, in a life and death struggle with an angel would consider his combat drudgery: “Oh my Gawd, I have to read this stupid shit, and its wing night at the Happy Pig! Poor me.!” I hate students like this. Fuck understanding them or thinking I was young once too. The young student who thinks this way is already dead—dead to literature, dead to wonder, and alive only to doing the absolute minimum in order to get the A. He knows only what he already understands, already has mastered, whatever his prejudices have tricked him into believing is knowledge. Fuck him with a spoon. I hope he chokes on a fucking mushroom!
But why should a student not think this way when more than half his teachers think the same? Standards? When I worked in a mold making factory, a standard mold meant it could be mass produced. Even high standards (in a mold factory this meant tighter specs) were merely the perfect form of something mediocre. The word standard implies the expected thing in the expected way, with the expected results. Our government calls this excellence. This is not excellence. We do not like excellence. True excellence is wounded, marked with the signs of combat—abnormal. God forbid we should have children who didn’t do mushrooms, and fuck, and wait until the last week to cram in the north tower of the library! Perish the thought! Such a kid might even (can we say it?) love reading, engage a poem with all the passion with which he or she eats a hot wing. It would be way beyond hot wings—it would be agon, the birth pain, that agony which is beyond the power of even the gods to understand. Gods have powers that make effort meaningless. We allow our children to act like gods, and the result is boredom, sloth, smugness, arrogance, and hot wings. Fuck them and fuck the teachers—fuck normality. A culture that is not based on agon, on ongoing birth, is no culture at all. It is wing night at the happy pig (until the economy crashes, and the good times flow into a day of reckoning, and everyone wants to understand, but the muscles for true understanding have already atrophied).
So ends my rant. I am about to model for you a form of close reading that does not need effort so much as stealth, and curiosity, and the willingness to wrestle with angels. It is the way I read when I worked a night shift in a factory, when I read like a prisoner condemned (which is exactly what I was). It does not matter what you do or accomplish in life. In the best case, you are going to die old and probably helpless with no power either to attract or to get yourself to the bathroom. You are a mortal creature condemned to death. For this reason, only love, in the sense of ardor and passion, can lodge a proper protest against our lousy state of affairs. Achievements and worldly success are the way of happy pigs. Love and ardor are beyond the effortless and eternal happy pig of the mind. Standing at the grill with your pretty spouse and little brats while the potato salad draws flies is not a dream worthy of being called human. It is not only sub-human, but sub-animal. You may as well have never existed. You wasted too much of the world’s energy, grabbed too big a piece of the pie, and we are better off that you are dead. If this is what the education system wishes to aid and abet, I’d rather see it dismantled. Amen.
Merchants. of the sea and of finance
(Smash the plate glass window)
The Dead face is the true face
of Washington, New York a misery, but north and east
the carpenter obeyed topography
As a hand addresses itself to the care of plants,
And a sense of proportion, the house
is put to the earth
Tho peopled with hants, New England
Move over to let the death-blow-in,
the unmanned or the transvest, drest
in beard and will, the capillary
Seven years with the wrong man,
7 yrs of tristus and vibulation.
And I looked up to see a toad. And the boy sd:
“I crushed one, and its blood is green.”
Green, is the color of my true love’s green
New England is
despite her merchants and her morals
Olson’s poetry is considered difficult. He was poet of agon, not hot wings, and we must be careful of the word difficult. It could mean the following:
1. I didn’t get it on the first read and I’m bored.
2. It sent me to the dictionary.
3. It didn’t do the expected things at the expected times that so comfort, and also bore me because my favorite thing in life is to be superior and bored. Boredom makes my eyelids and mouth look sexy. It’s the look of high fashion models!
This poem is not difficult. It is arduous, rigorous in its intentions and methods, and you don’t need a degree in postmodernist theory or experimental poems to read it. You just fucking enter. This is exactly how I devoured the poem when I was fifteen. Follow my lead:
First, it was hard for me to reread this poem because I had written all over it, but I remember: I did what I always do with a poem: I read it first without worrying about its meaning—to feel the pulse of its being on the page. If the meaning was obvious, fine. If not, just as good. Then I reread it to see if anything stood out in a different light. Only after this, did I begin to eat it line by line. Here’s how I ate it (these are from my notes):
Ok. This Olson guy isolates the word “merchants.” He treats it like a sentence, with a full period stop. As if that is not enough, he puts a gap of white space between it and the rest of the line: “of the sea and of finance.” Why? Is he being cute? Maybe. Is he ignorant of grammar? No. I don’t think so. A writer ignorant of grammar would have a run on sentence, not just one word with a period, so I am going to assume he has a reason for what he does. Maybe he wants us to think about the word: Merchants? What do poets think of merchants? Usually, not much. They depict them as flesh merchants, greed merchants, materialistic, corrupt, less than poets. Poets really give merchants a rough time. Is this Olson guy doing the same? Maybe. He certainly wants me to notice the word. Perhaps, he is doing it like a salutation and the poem is addressed to merchants— like the opening of a speech:
Dear Space aliens:
Friends, Romans, countrymen:
That sort of thing. I don’t know. If this is the case, he will impart information or a directive: “Lend me your ears!” Let’s look at the rest of the line:
Ok. “Of” means belonging to, so this is interesting. He obviously knows grammar, is even a little old fashioned because he puts the word of before each qualifier. He could have written: Merchants of the sea and finance. But he didn’t. “Of” must be important: it means to belong to a place. The Sea is a locale. Finance is an abstraction, a reality that is usually not spatial, but I think this Olson guy wants to consider finance as a sort of location too, just as the sea. At the same time, he may want the term sea to have its abstract connotations as well. The sea: the vast, the unknown, the unconscious. Finance: the known, the numbered, the all figured out. If so, there is a tension here. The sea is traditionally poetic, and finance is not. So he is yoking a poetic locale to an unpoetic locale. Maybe he is setting up a tension. These merchants belong to conflicting things. They are of the sea and of finance. It’s a little redundant to say a merchant is of finance. I mean, what other kind of merchant is there? It’s about buying and selling goods, right? So the best way to understand finance here is to see it as a place of origin, and it is tied to the sea by the word “and,” but the word “and” separates as much as it links: “Lips and lemons, dirt and the knee socks of nuns. Sea and finance.” The obvious meaning is that these merchants owe their livelihood to the sea and finance. The less obvious is that the sea and finance are conflicting origins, and the merchants will be torn on the wrack of failing to reconcile that contradiction. So, now, based on the evidence of what is in the poem (and not any pre-poem) I can make the following provisional assumptions: 1.This poet is not concerned with traditional grammar because he has a purpose in circumventing it. 2. This poet juxtaposes poetic and unpoetic things, and maybe he will use the tensions between them. 3. This poet may be doing a salutation in the first line, like: friends, Romans, countrymen… in which case it will be followed by something like: “lend me your ears.” So let’s move on to the next line:
(smash the plate glass window)
Ok. That’s a lot like “lend me your ears” in so far as it is an imperative, a sort of order or directive, but it’s put in parenthesis! Odd. Who should smash the plate glass window? The reader? The merchants? The poet? All of the above? A parenthetical can act as a stage whisper, a note to oneself, an aside. Parentheses are always a paradox because they say the information is not part of the main body, yet they draw attention to the information contained within. And what is “the plate glass window? It’s not “a plate glass window,” not just any plate glass window: it’s “the”— the true, the one and only ultimate plate glass window, and we don’t know who this is directed at. It’s ambiguous, a slight of hand. Hell, we don’t even know why it would be important to smash it. Who has plate glass windows, big ones, ultimate ones? Stores! Banks! Offices! Places of power and commerce, so I am going to guess that the plate glass window, the separation of the sea, and of finance must be smashed, and it must be known that these two locales impact and infest each other with their different qualities. Perhaps the poet is saying it is wrong for poets to only understand the sea, without knowing the finance, the shadow, the flip side of the poetic? I don’t know. I know now I was right about the poet at least making some sort of gesture towards salutation and persuasion. So, in a sense, this poem uses the tools of rhetoric, the mechanisms of public address and speech, but towards no end: pure speech, pure rhetoric, a plighting of his poetic troth! Maybe. I don’t know. I like that he would put “smash the plate glass window” in parentheses, and confuse the issue as to who should smash it, or why. Let’s move on to the third line:
Sounds like an aphorism, a maxim, a thesis. How is the dead face the true face? Well, someone dead can’t fake a smile or assume a look—an expression. Dead is dead and this cannot be false. Of course, he could be saying that, in this day and age, the look of boredom, of indifference is the true face. How does it relate to the other lines? The dead face is the true face of merchants? The dead face is the personification of the smashed plate glass window? All these are possible, and so I have a new hunch about this poet: he likes his meanings to be multiple. We could say unsure, or unclear, but I don’t get that. I get more a sense of violent refusal to say something plainly because that would take all the strength and complexity out of it, and what he is driving at is not mere statement. He does not like either/ors. I get the sense that this is a political poem—a poem critical of something. So far it has merchants, and smashed plate glass, and a dead face. Not exactly a pastoral. So onto the next line:
Ok. So the dead face is the true face of Washington. New York is a misery, but north and east… but means “yes this is so, but… a difference to the north and east. North of Washington and New York, and east (east of New York is the sea). So something is not dead north and east. What? Next line:
Who is the carpenter? Sounds like some mythic figure. Topography is the lay of the land. Rather than fighting or contending against the lay of the land, the carpenter, whoever he is, obeyed its contours, its demands, its essential shape and reality. I am going to assume the carpenter is a better alternative to the dead face and the merchants. Let’s move on:
as a hand addresses itself to the care of plants,
And a sense of proportion, the house
is put to the earth
tho peopled with hants, New England
Woah! What’s hants? I get out my big unabridged Webster’s (why not, its weight lifting) and look up hants:
1. Haunts, hauntings. If Olson means this, he means peopled by ghosts, by haunted and haunting inhabitants.
2. Hampshire: Hants is the dialect word for those from Hampshire, a part of England from which many early settlers came. So: peopled with those who came from Hampshire as in New Hampshire. He’s probably speaking of New Englanders.
3. Hant is an old contraction of has not, so peopled with “have nots”.
I decide Olson wants all three connotations since he seems to love multiplicity, and the not too determined. I’m thrilled because I’ve learned a new word and I am beginning to see how tricky and sly this poet is, and how well-informed and smart. I like that. It does not displease me. Let’s move on:
Ok. Another directive, another proposed act of violence. Something must be smashed and dealt a death blow. What? Move over, and let it happen! And why?
in beard and will, the capillary
Unmanned can mean deserted. It can also mean castrated and robbed of manhood. Transvest can refer to passing through, or being caught between the sexes, or rather, being under the appearance of a man (beard and will) without truly being one. The capillary—the blood. So the beard and will and blood of a man who is not truly a man. Let’s see how this plays out:
7 yrs of Tristus and vibulation.
Finally, a period. All these sentences and statements are confused as to where they begin or end. Parts of statements may belong to one clause or another. It is not clear. There is a name for this. I look it up: Amphiboly: the intentional or unintentional confusion and ambiguity of grammar or meaning so that there is more than one possibility. Example: “He looked at the man laughing.” Laughing could refer to he who looked or to the man he looked at—it’s up for grabs. I realize now that Olson is employing amphiboly as the chief structural device of his poem. Interesting because I have just read some poems by a student of his, Robert Creeley, which also employ a sort of radical amphiboly. You need to be smart, and to know grammar well in order to do this. It no longer bothers me that I don’t know which part of the sentence belongs to which subject or action. It adds complexity. It is a justified artistic technique—and ancient. It is deliberate. I can see by the evidence how it adds rather than subtracts from the poem. Now on to this weird passage:
Who is seven years with the wrong man? I know Jacob labored seven years for the wrong woman. But who was seven years with the wrong man? Not Helen of Troy. The name Tristus tips me off because I see it as an allusion to Tristan and Isolde. But Tristus is also sadness or sorrow in Latin. And vibulation could be a play, a pun on tribulation, but it is also a problem with the capillaries of the heart. Oh this Olson dude is a mother fucker! He is going everywhere, and everywhere being sly, and instead of just masturbating and showing off, he is adding depth and scope. So we finally get a period after all those clauses, and what next?
Because I’d read a lot by age fifteen, I saw this as an allusion, a travesty of the famous moment in St. Augustine’s Confessions, where Augie is all weepy under the tree and begging God to convert him, and an angel in the form of a boy holds a book (the bible) and says read. The “And” tips me off because whenever a sentence begins with “and” it sounds biblical or mock biblical: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” etc, etc. This is the first and only blatantly narrative moment in the poem. The boy says he crushed a toad, and its blood was green. This is the third act of violence: smash, move over and let the death blow in, and now, crush the toad to know its blood is green. The sea is green. Money is green. Perhaps the poet is returning through this weird digression to the theme of tension between merchants of the sea and of finance. We see the truth of something only when we are willing to smash through its facade. We see its blood and know its green is truly green and sure enough: “Green is the color of my true love’s green.”
This is a play on a song popular at the time, “black is the color of my true love’s hair.” Green is green once we have smashed through all the bullshit. Perhaps…:
You could read this multiple ways. The word despite means nonetheless, nevertheless, in spite of, but it also can mean spiteful and contemptuous, without value. I think Olson wanted both meanings. Whenever he can, like Emily Dickinson, he wants all the meanings. It could be read as a sort of “yoda” sentence: in spite of all this, New England is, despite her merchants and her morals. In short, New England is still alive, still viable, unlike New York and Washington. But it could be read very differently, as New England is contemptuous, especially in her merchants and her morals.
So I have come to the end of the poem. And I know a lot about the poet’s intentions and techniques without some expert having to tell me. I know he confuses and sabotages grammatical sentence structure against the line for the sake of creating multiple possible meanings. I know he is political, but not in an issue sort of way, more in a prophet sort of way. I know he likes ancient tricks of syndedoche, apostrophic address, and allusion. Most importantly, I know I enjoyed wrestling with his poem, and I could write essays now on ambiguity, the use of amphiboly in Olson’s poetry, or on violence as a form of purifying and purgation. The poem is not difficult. It is complex—a very different thing. I enjoyed myself. I did battle. I now might look up other poems by Olsen to see if he uses the same tricks. I may read up on him, and find that this ambiguity, and open structure, and his remark on the carpenter obeying the topography are parts of a larger aesthetic/philosophy. I have crushed the toad, and its blood is green. This is how I want my students to read—because it is active, and no less thrilling than detective work, and they are going to die someday without ever having made true contact with anything. If they read this way they just might grow tired of what is easy and obvious. Who knows?
I didn’t get a grade for reading Olsen. There is no grade for passion and true engagement. It is the only true way I know to lodge a protest against death. The gods should be so lucky. I defy, thee, gods! I die, but you never fucking live.
Joe Weil is an assistant professor at Binghamton University. His reviews, poems and short stories have appeared in Paterson Literary Review, Rattle, Lips, the Boston Review, North American Review, and the New York Times, among many others. He has work forthcoming in the Louisiana Review. He has four full-length collections of poetry; his latest collection of poems is The Great Grandmother Light published by New York Quarterly Books. In 2013 he was the recipient of the People’s Poetry Award by Partisan press. Joe Weil co-founded Monk Books with Bianca Stone and Adam Fitzgerald. He has since created Cat in the Sun Books with his wife Emily Vogel. Having grown up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Weil now lives in Binghamton with Emily and two small children, Clare and Gabriel.