Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Nomad, Meet Your Monad

Image by Enrique Chagoya: When Paradise Arrived, 1998.

This talk was presented as part of Los pies en otra tierra: Poetas exiliados y transterrados, a literary conference sponsored by Benémerita Autonomous University of Puebla, Mexico, October 28-31, 2008.

Paul Hoover
San Francisco State University

When I was born, in 1946, a majority of people in the U.S. lived on farms, and a subsistence farm could be purchased for the astonishing sum of $400, which was also the price of a new car. Before World War II, the percentage of Gross National Product that went to the military was small, and our army was the size of Sweden’s. There was no such thing as a credit card. My parents never bought anything on interest. They paid cash, as did most people. My mother established a large garden wherever we lived. We subsisted all summer on its produce of green beans, sweet corn, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, and fresh strawberries. When we briefly lived in town, where she could not longer raise her own chickens, my mother purchased live chickens and killed them herself using an axe and a tree stump. One day, the dying bird’s gymnastics left flowerets of blood all over the garden. After that, she covered the thrashing birds with a bushel basket. We ate in a restaurant once a year, on Mother’s Day. It was always the same restaurant. I always ordered the same thing, turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy. We did not eat steaks at home or away, because, I believe, we could not afford them. For religious reasons, we didn’t drink alcohol, smoke, dance, gamble, or curse.

The situation has changed dramatically, but not because I migrated to another country. The country migrated beneath my feet, becoming a land of strip malls, fast food restaurants, corporatism, massive credit card debt, celebrity culture, wars for profit and world control, loss of individual rights, a compromised U. S. constitution, a diminishing number of union jobs, falling wages for average workers, and 50 million citizens without health insurance—you name it, the change has been for the worse. Because the military-industrial complex runs the country, we spend more money for our military than the rest of the world put together. Consumers rather than citizens, we have become reified (sadly, not deified) products of capitalism’s eternal happiness machine. It’s a form of internal exile.

How different would your writing be if you killed your own chickens and dug your own family graves? Would the word “postmodern” still make any sense? Would your writing be just a little closer to fate? You can’t imagine your way out of culture; it is what it is. The sorrow or joy you feel in it will become a part of your work, just as the scent of pine is part of the tree. No matter how far-reaching our knowledge of new technologies, we are still the ones who witnessed and ritualized in family, rooted in unique personal mythologies. Native culture offers comfort; commodity culture offers desire and fear. Because it’s commodity-based, U. S. popular culture lacks the silence and reverence of ceremony; noise and speed wins our attention. This is why poetry is so necessary.

My poetry collection, Poems in Spanish (2005), contains poems written in English as if in Spanish. I had long admired the great poetry of Ibero-Hispanic modernism, from Pessoa and Drummond de Andrade to Lorca, Vallejo, Neruda, and Sabines. Their work had sweep, dance, humor, and depth. For some reason, as a German Protestant idealist norteamericano raised in the Midwest, I felt at home with them. There’s nothing puzzling about it. Poetry is nomadic and seeks a universal condition. It would be nice, but too easy, to say that we all share the native culture of spirit, imagination, and words well used. But queso is not the same thing as cheese. It doesn’t sound, look, or taste the same. And simpatía isn’t the same as sympathy. Nevertheless, poetry’s aesthetic is one of errancy and discovery. We slip and slide through our words until finally we put meaning at rest in the form of the poem. A few days later, it starts to slip again. It has just read Don Quixote and wants to travel the roads of Spain with a joisting lance in hand. Of all the literary genres, poetry most enjoys a migrant condition. It revels in metaphor; its motives are transformational. The sonnet originated in Sicily, the pantoum in Malaysia.

Here are two of the works in Poems in Spanish:

The World as Found

“All these things the creator told me in Alabama.”
—Sun Ra

Mariposa, what a clean word is that!
It can fly around all day
and never get mud on its wings.
It makes a clean sound as it passes right through me—
almost nothing really.

Mud sprawls on the ground, completely helpless.
Who can ever respect it?

Mariposa, butterfly,
so pretty and maybe crazy,
like Blanche Dubois as a girl.
Even Schmetterling
has a cadence true to its ideal.

Words in my mouth
are preparing for summer,
giving birth to themselves again.

It isn’t rocket science.
Everyone knows their names:
barranco and embankment,
noises and ruidos—
get down on your knees and pray!
A beautiful woman is passing,
and, if you insist, a man.
Words of skin and bone.

Where’s my refuge and my trap,
Where do they go when I think them?
All day the words are at me,
coming and going and meaning,
and in the evening also.
It’s the traffic of the world.

But at night, if it happens
that I sink into her body,
there is no word, not even silk,
to tell you what I'm thinking.
Sound spills from my mouth,
shapeless all around us.

Driver’s Song

I shall never reach Danville, Ohio,
Danville distant and lonely.

Black car, small moon,
in the back seat beer.
Because I’ve forgotten the roads
I shall never reach Danville, Ohio.

Over the plains, through Indiana,
where I was lonely also.
Black car, yellow moon.
My dead father keeps watch over me
from an upstairs window.

What a long way from California
and in what a fast car—
invisible to the soul.

Ahead I see death moving slowly on the road.
I know I will touch her clothing
before I ever reach Danville, Ohio.

Danville, distant and lonely.

“Driver’s Song” is a direct appropriation of Lorca’s “Rider’s Song.” The works are parodic but highly serious, nomadic but close to home.

The poet and translator, Pierre Joris, writes in Nomad Poetics: “What is needed now is a nomadic poetics. Its method will be rhizomatic: which is different from collage, i.e., a rhizomatics is not an aesthetics of the fragment, which has dominated poetics since the romantics even as transmogrified by modernism, high and low. . . . A nomadic poetic will cross languages, not just translate, but write in all or any of them.” (5)

Following Deleuze and Guattari, Joris wants a wandering rather than rooted system, a search for nutrients by the poet as desiring-machine. The poet is her/himself multiplicity in a system in which “any multiplicity connected to other multiplicities by superficial underground stems in such a way as to form or extend a rhizome” (Deleuze and Guattari 1606).

Adorno offers a more compact model: “What appears in the work of art is its inner time. . . . The link between art and real history is the fact that works of art are structured like monads” (126). In Pythagoras, the monad is God; in music, it is a single note; in Gnosticism, the beginning or source of All; in The Four Quartets, “the still point of the turning world.” A nomadic trek begins with a dot on the map. The monad exists before the concept of unison, because in the monad there is no difference. First, there’s the monad (everything), then the many, then desire (the nomad) creates the work of art, which is structured like a monad. The monad speeds but at a standstill.

Poems in Spanish are translations of a kind. I have also recently produced a manuscript called Sonnet 56, which consists of 56 versions (traducciónes) of Shakespeare’s sonnet of that number. I would like to present the original and two translations. Noun Plus Seven (N + 7) is a writing game invented by Jean Lescure of Oulipo, acronym in French for Bureau of Potential Literature. It involves replacing every noun in the original with the seventh to follow in the dictionary. Haikuisation is the making of the original into a haiku. For instance, you could “haikuise” the novel War and Peace.


Sweet love, renew thy force, be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but today by feeding is allayed,
Tomorrow sharp’ned in his former might.

So love be thou, although today thou fill
Thy hungry eyes, ev’n till they wink with fullness.
Tomorrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness.

Let this sad interim like the oceans be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view;

As call it winter, which being full of care,
Makes summer’s welcome, thrice more wished, more rare.

Noun Plus Seven

Sweet love game, renew thy forecaster, be it not said
Thy editor should blunter be than apple-jack,
Which but today by feeling is allayed,
Tonality sharp’ned in his former mildew.

So love game be thou, although today thou fill
Thy hungry eyebright, ev’n till they wink with fullery.
Tomorrow see again, and do not kill
The spirochete of love with a perpetual dumbbell.

Let this sad interleaf like the ocotillo be
Which parts the shortcake, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banker, that when they see
Revelation of love game, more blest may be the vigilante;

As call it winter melon, which being full of carfare,
Makes sumpweed’s wellcurb, thrice more wished, more rare.


Love, renew thy force.
Thy edge should blunter be than


Adorno, T. W. Aesthetic Theory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.” In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. William E. Cain, et al (W. W. Norton, 2001): 1601-1609.

Joris, Pierre. Nomad Poetics. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Aesthetic Theory: Adorno 23

Adorno (23): "Schonberg noted what an easy time Chopin had composing something beautiful because all he needed to do was choose the then little used key of F-sharp major."

PH response: Our definition of beauty changes along with the culture’s tolerance for off-notes and dissonance. In our time, agreement of figure and ground is considered corny. We desire groundless figures and figureless ground. A contemporary guitar site refers to the Hendrix chord, the “7 sharp 9,” to be found on the song “Purple Haze” (E7#9). When struck, it jangled and satisfied the ears of its time. The dissonance in language poetry comes from the long-established device of parataxis, in which images or fragments, often dissimilar, are placed together without a clear purpose. The dissonance to be tolerated in Flarf is the less-than-heroic choice of the Google search engine as a compositional device; with Newlipo, dissonance appears in attention to formal play over seriousness and lyricism. No gravitas, no beauty? But Kenneth Koch's playfulness wasn't without weight. For example:


Aged in the fire.

Every age has its note. Grunge's blend of dissonant chords and "sludge" with Nirvana's "soft verse, hard chorus," supposedly borrowed from the Pixies, expressed the 90s prescient anxiety about a lost future. In the movie Hype! (1996), a Seattle musician explains that the plaintive Seattle sound resulted from a specific chord structure, but I don't know enough about music to recall how it worked.

Expressing, among other things, the comedy/pathos of the instrument's limitations, John Cage’s Composition for Toy Piano is a dignified and lovely work of art, but initially it may have seemed silly. Because Flarf and Newlipo present their carnivalesque and conceptual qualities first, their dissonance lies in a seeming lack of dignity. But poetry is capable of maintaining carnival and gravitas at the same time: the Beckett in Keaton and the Keaton in Beckett. The clown that never smiles (Keaton), the one that never speaks (Harpo Marx), and the reeling drunk who breaks into gorgeous song are stock types of pathos, just as pathos is a stock mode of comedy, and the ridiculous readily fledges with the sublime. Someone quite late to a performance of Hamlet might suppose, upon seeing the bodies lying all about, that the presentation had been farce.

The return to lyricism in our period arrives just in time for the greatest financial crisis in U.S. history. But that doesn't mean that irony is out of a job, with all the cognitive dissonance in need of words.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Thomas Traherne, 1637-1674

Thomas Traherne was born in Hereford, England, to a shoemaker’s family but was most likely orphaned, along with his brother Philip, at an early age. Adopted by the family Traherne, he received his B.A. from Oxford University in 1656 and was appointed Rector of Credenhill the following year. Unknown in his own time except for the politically motivated Roman Forgeries. Traherne produced, among other works, Centuries of Meditations, Meditations on the Six Days of Creation, the Ficino notebook, the Dobell sequence of poems, and Poems of Felicity. His literary estate was so carelessly managed by his brother, who also conventionalized the language and spelling of some works, that his poems were first published as the work of Susanna Hopton, a religious leader who had been Traherne's friend. It was not until 1903 that his Dobell poems and meditations began to appear under his own name (Dobell being the scholar who identified their true author). In 1910, Poems of Felicity was published. James Osborne discovered the Select Meditations in an archive in 1964. In 1967 a manuscript of Traherne’s Commentaries of Heaven was plucked from a heap of burning rubbish in Lancashire. It was not until 1982 that the work was identified as Traherne’s at the University of Toronto.

Traherne was an ecstatic neo-Platonist and devotional visionary whose work is consistent both with the English Metaphysical and Romantic styles. Blake and Wordsworth explore similar themes, but they could not have read Traherne’s poetry.

The following excerpt (first two stanzas) of the poem "Sight" is taken from Thomas Traherne: Selected Poems and Prose, edited by Alan Bradford (Penguin Classics, 1991). In the original the poem and title are centered on the page.


Mine infant-eye
Above the sky
Discerning endless space,
Did make me see
Two sights in me;
Three eyes adorn’d my face:
Two luminaries in my flesh
Did me refresh;
But one did lurk within,
Beneath my skin.
That was of greater worth than both the other;
For those were twins, but this had ne’er a brother.

Those eyes of sense
That did dispense
Their beams to natural things,
I quickly found
Of narrow bound
To know but earthly springs.
But that which through the heavens went
Was excellent,
And endless; for the ball
Was spiritual:
A visive eye things visible doth see;
But with th’ invisible, invisibles agree.

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"The Crisis Was a Heist"

See Jim Jubak's journal on MSN for an eye-popping opinion about the current financial crisis. I'll quote from the lead paragraph:

Fluke? Credit Crisis Was a Heist

Thanks to a complicit Congress, the reins were systematically loosened on the looters of the financial industry. And they're still at it, looking for new plunder.

It was no accident.

The folks in power in Washington and on Wall Street want to pretend that the current global financial crisis -- you know, the one that reduced household net worth in the United States by $11.2 trillion in 2008, according to the Federal Reserve -- was an accident caused by some unfortunate confluence of greed and asleep-at-the-switch regulators.

What we're now living through, though, is the result of a conscious, planned looting of the world economy. Its roots stretch back decades. And it wouldn't have been possible without the contrivances of the bought-and-paid-for folks who sit in Congress.

Of course, just because the plan blew up on the looters, taking off a financial finger here and a portfolio hand there, you shouldn't have any illusion that they've retired. In fact, in the "solutions" now being proposed -- by Congress -- to fix the global and U.S. financial systems, you can see the looters at work as hard as ever.

Full article at:


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Desolation : Souvenir

The new issue of Colorado Review (36.1, Spring 2009), edited by Stephanie G'Schwind, Donald Revell, Sasha Steensen, and Matthew Cooperman, just arrived in the mail. I have five poems in it from "Desolation : Souvenir," a fifty page work of three stanzas to the page. Here are two:

the window shakes like water

at the center of sensation
>>>>>which has no edge
the sand mechanic stands
>>>>>nothing windswept sleeps

you can't wear a hat
>>>>>too far inside your head
after the guillotine
>>>>>the impercipient feels
much larger than he is

man is born to die
>>>>>the fold holds him well
life is past time
>>>>>'words are not the word'
memory's a savant
>>>>>shining from its well

goodbye to all the bees

hands joined how?
>>>>>as if in thought dying
as if a song roared
>>>>>the rain forgot to pour
what point in space divides us
>>>>>which one holds us close?

sheerest of walls
>>>>>almost transparent
to feel is to fail
>>>>>venus envy, filial wail

water and bell
>>>>>ringing with each wave
a work of vastness
>>>>>too lucid for the mind
behind what wall
>>>>>is the private sacrifice?

Monday, March 09, 2009

My Favorite Fragment (Hölderlin)

In the readings that Maxine and I have been giving of our Hölderlin translations, most recently at Boise State University, we always like to present "Tinian," from the Fragments of Hymns section. It displays the intensity of his phrasing and imagery ("And drink at the wolf teats / Of the waters. . ." and "for the gods / Hazard us a falcon's glance"), his sweetness of character, and his intellectual and mythic scope (". . .the gods / Decree these outward signs to be birthmarks / Of whose child / The West must be"). The falcon figure reminds me of an image from our Boise trip, glimpsed as we were driving through the mountains on our way to a natural hot spring: a bald eagle feeding in the ribcage of a deer, its head feathers blood-spotted. At the spring with Martin Corless-Smith and his graduate student Stephen, snow fell onto our shoulders and into the pool as we soaked. I've added spacing indicators because the blog's format collapses all type to the left margin without them.


It’s sweet to get lost
In the holy wilderness,

-- -- -- --

And drink at the wolf teats
Of the waters that wander
Through my native land
To me,

>>>>>>>>>>>>>,wilder once,
But now, like orphans, accustomed to the taste;
In spring, when unfamiliar wings
Return to the warmth of the woods

>>>>>>>>>>>>>resting in solitude,
Among the willow trees
Full of fragrance
Where butterflies
Mingle with bees
And your Alps

Divided from God

The divided world,

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>indeed they stand


And wander as they wish, timelessly

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>for the gods
Hazard us a falcon’s glance, or
Like gladiators, the gods decree
These outward signs to be birthmarks
Of whose child
The West must be;

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Some flowers
Don’t grow from the earth, but sprout
In loose soil of their own will,
Counter-light of our days, nor should
One pick them.
For they stand golden,
Prepared only for what they are,
Leafless even
As thoughts,

Translated by Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

We've Decided (Homophonic Series)

[The poem "We've decided" was published in Nervous Songs, 1986. Fifteen years later I wrote four homophonic translations of the work; likewise, of two other poems in the book.] Photo by Philip Hoover.


I can be myself today, tall space ape
in a garden where other space apes play.
What a nice time this will be! and I
can roll on the sides of my balled feet
like a hairy barrel loaded, swinging arms
that scratch the ground like leaves. I’m
an ape today, headed for my pulpit of joy
in sunshine by the window. Daughter laughs.

That’s good. We can hear her mother dressing:
conspicuous absent rustle, dry nylon and hair.
Oh, lord of the spinal cord, what stone
repose do I feel when high heels spike
the spilled roast beef? I do not play
no rock and roll. I am an ape today.


Spies can be themselves and pray, space shapes
like wardens where other space shapes pray.
What bright signs lists can be! and I
can play goalie on gliding robo-feet
like an aery feral gnosis, thinking of alms
that match the sound of waves. I'm
a shape that prays, shedding all culpable joys
in an undying window. Laughter laughs.

That’s new. We can fear its other lessons:
continuous absent hustle, tight nylons and tears.
Ode bored with final form, what bone
composure do I feel when ideals strike
the still moist leaf? I do not spray
no phlox with oil. I am a shape today.


I can see the shelf OK, call space a grape
in jargon since tender fresh grapes change.
What a crime scene this will be! and I
can roll on my bowling ball feet
like a scary bear exploded, singing of charms
that catch the sound of the sea. I’m
a grape, OK, headed for my gulp of joy
in an unshining window. Laughter gasps.

What’s food? We can bear our brother fressing:
despicable absent bustle, cry of lions and bears.
Oh, lord of the penal code, what stoned
exposure do I feel when the spine feels like
chilled ice tea? Nor do I ever say
no lox and bagels. I am a grape, OK?


The eye can be itself today, space tape
in a garden where other space tapes play.
What a fine slime this will be! An eye
call roll on the side of its raw seeing
like a tarrying arrow slowing, singing words
that flinch like ounce and please. The eye is
itself today, shedding all its Tupelo joy
in gun-shine at the window. Daughter’s black

in mood. She can fear the other mission:
continuous ashen tussle of high pylons and air.
Restored like the final chord, what tonal
closure do I feel when spiked tea kills
a thrilled ghost cleanly? The eye won’t pay
the landscape’s toll. The eye is space today.


The shy can be themselves today—pace and gape
in a dungeon where others gape and pace.
What a fine shyness this will be! and shyness
can stroll the length of its long street
like a hairy chairman bloated, singing harms
that smash the proud like fleas. The shy
have faith today, headed for their populist joy
in the blind sign of a window. Father brags,

“I'm stewed.” He can hear grandmother’s lessons:
ubiquitous passion, dust, fine dye jobs, and prayer.
Torn like the final word, what prone
disposal do I seek when high steel strikes
a West Coast priest? The shy don’t play
with no damned fool. The shy are afraid today.

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Friday, March 06, 2009

Aesthetic Theory: Adorno 156

Adorno (156): "As long as art takes the form of works, it is essentially things, objectified in accordance with a law of form." Art work by Robert Smithson.

Response of PH:

Some laws of form are:
(1) To abide by one form only, remaining consistent throughout: monostich, haiku, imagist poem, blank verse.
(2) To marry several forms in one object: sonnet, masque.
(3) To seek the form of dissolution, from fragment to smaller fragment to photon.
(4) To establish duration: granite and epic rather than paper and lyric.
(5) To shift from one form to another (masque, modernist long poem).
(6) To seek intensity through volume (slam poetry, D.H. Lawrence) or lack of volume (Aram Saroyan, John Cage).
(7) New forms through new technologies (poetry machines, Flarf, Oulipo).
(8) New forms through new ideologies (Marxism : Constructivism = Freud : Surrealist collage).
(9) To express sincerity and belief (Romanticism).
(10) To express insincerity, disbelief, and even scorn (Swift and Nietzsche).
(11) To express lyrically by means of disbelief and a series of valuable emptinesses(Beckett).
(12) To seek form through formlessness (Mallarmé, free verse).
(13) To be monadic and nomadic (Mallarmé, Postmodernism).
(14) To be a solid, sensual fact, thus monumental (Rodin, Whitman, Milton).
(15) To be a chip off the old shard (early Clark Coolidge, appropriation and collage, minimalism)
(16) To contract what was large (bathos, parody, satire)
(17) To greatly enhance what was small (Niedecker, Williams, Moore)
(16) To seek unison and find difference (bad poetry, bad singing).
(17) To seek difference and find unison (good poetry, jazz).
(18) To suggest that it's all just a game (Oulipo, high artifice, collage).
(19) To repeat yourself endlessly (Gertrude Stein)
(20) Never to repeat yourself endlessly (Gertude Stein)

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Mirror and the Encyclopedia

Orbis Tertius: The Mirror and the Encyclopedia
Paper presented at Druskininkai Poetic Fall, Vilnius, Lithuania
October 3-6, 2008

Paul Hoover
San Francisco State University

Orbis Primus is the world as is; it’s the rock that Samuel Johnson kicked to refute the Idealism of Berkeley. This first world of nature, civilization, and other physical matter (including ourselves) makes imagination possible. Orbis Secundus is the world of imagination, memory, representation, and art. Here we also find accidents of perception, such as mishearing, an uncanny poetry of the everyday. Philosophy is keen on this second world, for example the famous relation of word to thing. It is also an area of dispute regarding the illusion-making faculty of poetry, without which Coleridge’s “Christabel” and Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” would have little force. By joining the visual potency of language, ekphrasis, with movement, such poetry creates a mental cinema that seems almost real, therefore believable. The film semiotician Christian Metz refers to the experience of the real in art as diegesis, a narrative that creates a reality but also admits to its status as a telling. The American phenomenon of language poetry shows its puritanical side in opposing, as illusory, both narrative and the image-icon. Ironically, it makes a claim for the erotics of its oblique and intermittent phrasing, a la Roland Barthes in his comments on zero-degree writing. But a large part of poetry’s power is its ability to “world,” to borrow from Heidegger, through seeing. Common sense and experience tell us that readers aren’t fooled by literary apparitions; they know what they are and delight in them. Adorno writes, “Now, just before the curtain rises there is an instant of expectation: everybody is waiting for an apparition.” (Adorno121) We go to writing for information and pleasure. Why deny the sensual world of objects and their shadows? Do I have to hold a brick in my hand every time I want to use the word brick?

If Orbis Primus is the thing, and Orbis Secundus is the words for the thing, Orbis Tertius is the resulting complex of meaning (poem, city, civilization, dream world, English garden, not as reality but as idea). As a mental construction of seemingly little permanence, it’s a world far in, rather than far out. Borges’ 1940 story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” begins, “I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia.” (Borges 3) Like the lost mountain in René Daumal’s novel, Mount Analogue, Uqbar exists only metaphysically and metaphorically, not in material reality. Orbis Tertius is the icebound Arctic ship on which Victor Frankenstein meets his creation eye to eye, a monster who, out of revenge for his grotesqueness and lost bride, has destroyed all that is dear to his maker. It’s Zeus descending as a swan to ravish Leda. In the Borges story, four pages are missing from Volume XLVI of the fictional Anglo-American Dictionary; it is those pages, of 921, that describe the conditions of Uqbar. Thus, imaginary pages describe an imaginary land of imaginary conditions. As readers, we trust that Jorge Luis Borges was a man of real flesh who lived in Buenos Aires and wrote: “For one of those gnostics, the visible universe was an illusion or (more precisely) a sophism. Mirrors and fatherhood are abominable because they multiply and disseminate that universe.” (Borges 4)

Ancient Greek sophists could win any side of an argument through verbal skill and false reasoning. They had no particular commitment to truth and would sell their services in the agora. According to Borges, “The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for truth or even verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.” (Borges 10) For instance, Tlön has a transparent tiger and a tower of blood. In Tlön, the only science is psychology, even though there are no people. Tlönian literature “abounds in ideal objects, which are convoked and dissolved in a moment, according to poetic needs.” (9)

Borges’ story is a burlesque on Idealism. What we experience is an airy copy, like shadows cast on a cave wall. Half of western thought is built upon such an assumption, in other words, upon a poetic image. According to an online article, in Plato’s myth of Er, the cosmos consists not of bands of light and darkness (Parmenides), or spheres, “but of the ‘lips’ of concentric whorls fitted into one another like a nest of boxes.” (Burnet, section 93, “The Stephanae”) Compared to the story of Er, Uqbar suddenly doesn’t seem so outlandish. Cosmologists are inevitably poets.

Given the tone of our own time, it’s important to note the story’s political resonance. The directors of the Orbis Tertius have leaked news of its existence into the real world, with the result that ideal objects have been disseminated throughout it:

“Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly plant?” (Borges 17)

Today, we have our own orderly plant, the spread of global capitalism and corporate power. Following the fall of the Trade Towers in 2001, the U. S. has abandoned any pretense that it is not a ruthless world power. Under Bush-Cheney, it has suspended habeas corpus, tortured prisoners, damaged the constitution, seized power in all three branches of government, ignored the needs of its citizens (excuse me, consumers), refused to execute laws passed by Congress, and opened the treasury to corporate looters through lax regulations and war profiteering. All these developments were licensed by the images of 911. If to any degree, they were manipulated to give an impression of reality, we do indeed live in a repressive Wag the Dog world (compare Bela Tarr’s Werkmeister Harmonies, a chilling fable of demagoguery). A false image can send people racing through the streets with farm implements in hand.

Poetry is expected to be in good faith. We trust that it is unencumbered in its pursuit of truth and beauty, old and new. Why should poetry be anything but sincere? When a poem is true, even its artifice is surpassing.

Things themselves are true; they could not be truer. A stone is always stone, and a wall is eine Mauer. They are ancient and faithful markers of the world as found. You can try to lie in poetry about the stone, but we won’t believe you. We know it too well. If someone writes that wind and stars sweep through a stone, we test the truth of it on our nerves; that is, on poetry’s terms as well as those of science. This particular proposition may be true even to science. Some stones have fallen from space in flame; they’ve rested underground for thousands of years, in the dark.

Can art be true in one way, for instance technically, but assert something untrue? In Heidegger’s clearing, or Open, the truth is unconcealed, something so deeply familiar that it seems true for the first time. We enter the journey with the hope, or even expectation, that a clearing lies ahead. But when that journey is entirely mapped, the recognition is puny and the art impoverished. A carpenter or a professor may know what is plumb, right, and true, see beauty in it, and go home to beat his wife. There is beauty in right angles and parallel lines that never meet. The right angle is rational and objective; Rodchenko and Tatlin, who avoided the curved line as lyrical and bourgeois, would have seen its beauty. Parallel lines are mystical and whimsical, because the axiom that they will never meet can only be proved by imagination. This sort of brave, laughable, metaphysical puzzle, on a hopeful traipse after its forever-to-be-unproved proof, is my idea of a good time in poetry. Farewell, parallel lines, immortal train tracks, emblem of the soul’s destination, that seem to meet just as they disappear, but not really!

Charles Simic, author of Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk, employs such whimsical and intellectual imagery. The world is full of real things, such as milk, that poets can’t stop investigating. The more scrupulous the research of object as object, the greater the metaphysical investment, the more intense the drama, and the closer it is to silence and mythology. Simic’s poem “The Wall” contains this stanza:

The fly I was watching,
The details of its wings
Glowing like turquoise,
Its feet, to my amusement
Following a minute crack—
An eternity
Around that simple event.

(Cosmology 28)

The metaphysical is rarely warm and cozy. It’s the recognition of the solitude of things. Simic’s poetry reminds us that poetry, indeed all literature, creates allegorical worlds. The literary modes of the fable and dream underlie much of his work, both fictional in their “worlding.”

Borrowing from Martin Buber, Jerome Rothenberg wrote that the truth of a thing is like a kernel of grain; the husk is its outward appearance. But the gleaming kernel shouldn’t get all the attention; the husk, in its pale overcoat, also has metaphysical character. What matters to poetry is the true fiction that such things make possible. In the work I most enjoy, the representation is as real as the thing. I suspect this makes me an idealist.

Without the thing, there is no representation and no poem. Without representation, the thing is unrecognizable. In one sense, truth is an imaginary, which doesn’t mean it’s not true. It sounds like an old science fiction movie, but all of these worlds collide, intersect, and coincide, which is largely the point of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”: “A man and a woman / Are one. / A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one.” (Stevens 93)

Laura Riding eventually abandoned poetry in the belief that it is a “lying art.” She was uncomfortable in the Orbis Secundus of suggestion, representation, and shadow play. Obviously, she had no sense of humor.

In the postmodern period, much doubt has been cast on lyricism, but the same scholars who condemn it probably love mournful songs and the changing color of wheat as wind presses it down on a field. In poetry, the accuracy of the fiction does the singing. It’s what the mirror told the encyclopedia, and the other way around.


Adorno, Theodore. Aesthetic Theory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970/1984.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writing, Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Directions, 1964.

Burnet, John. “Early Greek Philosophy, Chapter IV, Parmenides of Elea.”

Simic, Charles. “A Wall.” Charon’s Cosmology. New York: George Braziller, 1977.

Stevens, Wallace. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1982.

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