If you ever happen to be in any major American city, make sure to go to any major street (usually, a business district) between the hours of 12 and 1 p.m. Sit down and
look around with an eye of a cool observer. What you will see is a typically American
phenomenon: people scurrying around the streets with faces that wear uniform smiles, yet, inevitably, betray consternation, anxiety, and an unexplained desire to beat the clock, to suck out the most out of time, to squeeze “quality” into the well-deserved, allotted one hour respite. Nevertheless, the resulting scene is far from relaxing. It is reminiscent of second-rate movies like “The Invasion of the Flies,” with one saving grace ahead: the striking of 1 p.m., when the lunchers return to their places of toil and the streets are, once again, left to their desolation.
When these same lunchers were asked in a poll to name the most poetic work
they named a recent demonstration of anarchists in Seattle where the marchers screamed “Death to corporations!” It is curious that there was no mention of Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson. In fact, there was no mention of anyone who is professionally connected to poetry. In my opinion, the answer lies not so much in Americans being ignorant of their own poets, which, by the way, they are, but in the total predictability of their existence. This predictability is so destructive that it, alas, could be topped not by Dickinson’s solitary meditations in Amherst, but by the equally destructive outbursts of protest.
Even more recently, Washington, the city in which I live, was transformed from.
a sterile and dull cradle for bureaucrats into a colorful, at times violent scene of rebellion against the local status quo when the same Seattle demonstrators staged their protest in the capital.
What does all this have to do with poetry?
Everything, as far as I am concerned. Art, any form of art, is man’s reaction to
his surroundings: aesthetic as well as ethical. Even the notion of art for art’s sake, although
it does sound a bit insincere to me, is a reaction of a sort, since it ignores all other “sakes.” The nature or the extent of a given artist’s reaction is, naturally, relative, depending on that artist’s tastes and nerves. Allen Ginsberg reacted differently, in a more immediate, concrete manner, than, let’s say, the same Emily Dickinson. At the root of any artistic expression lies rebellion, opposition to habit. In fact, if I were to define art, I would say that it is antihabit. I am convinced, that no one who is absolutely and completely content with the way this world looks, sounds, or functions will ever be urged to grab a pen, much in the same way as no one who is satisfied with the world-order would hold
up a protest poster. The point of view that a poet must not be political, that is, must
not voice his/her opinion about the surrounding social structure, does not only sound dull to me; it sounds utterly impossible. So far, not even the most ethereal poet has managed to shield himself from earthly existence, or, to put it shortly, has managed to be dead while alive.
The essence of corporate America implicitly and explicitly diametrically opposes
any artistic, poetic sentiment, because it diametrically opposes spiritual spontaneity or spiritual rebellion. (I would say that America’s open roads are
an exception since in their desolate emptiness, they resemble a brain high on wishful thinking). If Christ were to appear in America today, he would not be given the satisfaction of being publicly crucified. Rather, he would be privately cast aside to rot away his days in some homeless shelter. And this is precisely
the state of poetry in America.
The corporate America is a tyranny of accumulation, a tyranny of quantity over
quality. In fact, it is a tyranny that long ago trampled and defeated the Word, if we assume
the Word to mean artistic or spiritual expression. It not only mutes the alternative sound, it makes it non-existent. Ninety-five percent of what passes under the label of poetry is sleepy reflections of suburban professors who would bore anyone with an inkling of imagination to a daze. Television is not only a better alternative, it is a more honest alternative, because, every now and then, Hollywood manages to make movies like the “American Beauty” or its bad brother “American Psycho,” which challenge the status quo. American poetry, on the other hand, not only does not challenge it (with extremely rare exceptions), it fortifies it. Basically, it is eating out of the hand that chokes it, out of
the hand that promotes unanimity of action and thought — the main trait of any tyranny. If you opened any major American literary publication, you would be, I think, shocked by the deadly monotony printed there. You would be, I believe, struck by the notion that
American men and women of letters have mysteriously abandoned the faculty
of thinking and feeling and have all decided, as if in some secret society, to solely cling to the faculty of description. Book after book, magazine after magazine, page after page — incessant descriptions, incessant repetitions of the existing reality, incessant enslavement
of words to facts. Very rarely do you come across words which attempt to rethink reality
or to reintroduce it in different terms. Gore Vidal said that English-language poetry had come to a dead end for a very simple reason that it was no longer being read. I would not blame the potential readers, though, who have diverted their gaze elsewhere. Only the insane would want to constantly stare in the mirror — that’s what American poetry tends to be all about.
American poets pretend that they are dead, in an everyday sense of this word, and the readers, alas, believe them. Hence, their total disregard. American poets are squeamish of life and life is also squeamish of them, and life with its facts proves to be
more powerful than a handful of dispersed academics. In my opinion, one of the major
poetic revolutions in the English language was the emergence of Rap music and Rap lyrics. The only reason that it was not cut at its root is the fact that American companies found it to be a profitable tool. The clothing industry made billions on Rap and the sleek ideologues applied their marketing skills and included Rap into the mainstream as if it were another Frank Sinatra. This is exactly how the corporations
work — by bribing and enslaving the different and the original, by subduing the rebellious with promises of shiny gold and making it invisible in the stream of its gray waters of mediocrity. This is how we regressed from Bob Dylan to Madonna and this is how we came from Tupak to TLC. The country of bountiful choices leaves you no choice, or just one choice, to ignore its sorry literary state. And this is the corporate America’s unique achievement. It has recognized early on the danger of the Word, of the spirit, but it chose a different way to suppress it. Years of Soviet oppression and intolerance failed to produce 95% of writers who can only describe and 100% of potential readers who ignore the written word. The USSR openly punished its original thinkers; the corporate America converts them into chameleons that could only take on the colors of red, white, and blue, and who could only describe those three colors.
Description is affirmation, is acceptance. The propaganda machine of the USSR insisted that its citizens be exposed to constant images of its leaders. That machine proved to be more naive than its counterpart built by the corporations, which has chosen Mickey Mouse instead of the Marx-Engels-Lenin trio and Coke instead of the hammer and sickle. Seemingly very harmless symbols, aren’t they? Well, they are not; these are the symbols
that led to the monotony of the spirit and its selling out. It is easier to rebel against the depiction/description of a man, even if that man is Marx, than against a harmless, cute mouse. The corporate America is turning everything into a tasteless game of symbols and the world, including Russia, seems to be buying it. But not its poets and writers. They, I think, remain true to the seemingly impossible ideals which the immediate reality strives to
subordinate — ideals of change.
As a poet living in America, which I consider home, my hopes and sympathy lie
with them — the faithful servants of the Word which is the most sure obstacle to the humiliating and all-enveloping realm of the Deed. And fully realizing
the total absurdity of a daily life of a poet in this very anti-poetic universe, I choose to divert my gaze from the barbaric, goal-oriented symbolism of America’s corporations and aimlessly walk its major streets and avenues mumbling Mayakovsky’s lines during the allotted lunch hour in order to render my own existence some meaning or hope: “...Upon the scales of a tin salmon/ I read the call of lips yet mute./ And you, could you have played a nocturne/ with just a drainpipe for a flute?”
to the main page
to the content of essays page