From years past, these two poems, Poisonous Relations and Gene Supreme, were nominated for the ever-elusive Pushcart Prize by Trinacria and The Raintown Review, respectively. Both of these poems appear in my poetry book ‘Serpentrope’ available here.
From years past, these two poems, Poisonous Relations and Gene Supreme, were nominated for the ever-elusive Pushcart Prize by Trinacria and The Raintown Review, respectively. Both of these poems appear in my poetry book ‘Serpentrope’ available here.
White Violet Press, 2013
If I told you that most of the poems in Norman Ball’s Serpentrope are metered and rhymed, with four-fifths of them sonnets, you’d probably get the wrong idea. So we’ll consider that a bit later. Instead, let’s begin with the eclectic nature of the book.
I believe Serpentrope is the only poetry book published to date that contains poems on the topics of: Civil War battle fatigue; formal poetry in its relation to a famous wardrobe malfunction; and Aleister Crowley’s Cult of Lam. The poems often display a love of detail—historic and current—as in this excerpt from ‘Observations of a Civil War Surgeon As Night Falls’:
Cattail and catgut duel within the marsh
that clads the Susquehanna east of York.
Two minstrels, facing off, interpret harsh
conditions with guitars. The river’s fork
accompanies with stiff, percussive reeds.
Ball’s poems stem from an obvious intelligence, and that seems appropriate. Often they mimic the way that neurophysiologists characterize our thinking process: as the firing up of nodes of meaning that excite other nodes in a sort of spreading activation, until a whole pattern of nodes—perhaps previously unconnected—fires together, leading to new connections and novel insights. None of this, according to the theory, is sentential. Sentences come later. This mental commotion underlying conscious thought is echoed in Ball’s poetry in passages such as this from the poem ‘Formal Spat ‘:
… One dares
not ride a colleague’s time-worn rhyme. Left-hand feet
may dangle. Diction may rankle, stubborn
with vague intent. Relax. Sonnets can’t meet
the rent with a metered stick…
Or this, from ‘It Was A Totter From The Start’:
The duty steeped itself in stand-up time,
a rope to drag the day upon itself
with busying to coax the febrile mind
from thought, to book, to browse, to empty shelf.
Many of Ball’s poems employ puns, allusions, and apparently unrelated content. The result is that they often excite neurons in our minds that, at least for me, are firing together for the first time. This type of mental fireworks can be fatiguing, and it may be that the best way to read Serpentrope is to limit oneself to two or three poems a day.
I may have mentioned that Ball’s poems take on a wide variety of subjects. Serpentrope includes poems centered on: the cartoon character Dilbert rendered in a Hilbertian sonnet; dropping poems by airplane on Afghan villagers in wartime; and ballerinas with bulimia. And often the poems render their subjects in witty, punning, allusive lines. Like these in an excerpt from the poem about Dilbert, the cartoon engineer working in a cubicle in a large corporation:
… Dilbert stirs this pot with lead
balloons. His poker-face is barely drawn
by nine. Outside the box, Big Bosses rake
trapped miners over coals while overhead
a phosphor-fingered entity has sawn
animal spirits squarely down to size —
three taut frames. Dilbert’s zeppelin subsides.
Of course, like real-world explosions, explosions of meaning can do damage if not controlled, and Ball is an explosives expert. These poems are nearly all contained in meter and rhyme, and now that you have a feel for the content, it can more fully be revealed that most of them are in sonnet form. The interplay between the subject matter, the allusions, and the forms adds another dimension to the experience of reading Ball’s work — a dimension that I believe elevates the wild content by the mere fact of being under such control.
Given the eclectic nature of Serpentrope (I should mention that it contains poems on the subjects of: belly fat; the fate of a member of the band REO Speedwagon; and the turbulent life of the prophet Isaiah), it should be noted that the book also contains some recurring themes.
The most explicit is that of the snake Ouroboros, a topic treated in several of the poems and the subject of an essay included as an appendix to the book. The image of the snake with its tail in its mouth, sometimes curled protectively around the earth and sometimes a part of it, has, according to Ball’s essay, fascinated him for years. In the poem ‘Ouroboros,’ Ball portrays the snake in a menacing way:
…The proper name’s Hell-
that cool, wrapped bitch— trite circle. Let her clasp
sweet tail in teeth. All gray divides sell
foot-in-mouth diversions. I will have
my foe just-so. Discrete obsession. Damn
all demons who arrive. The golden calf,
zirconia stalking horse, is lamb
I dressed for slaughter…
But it is not always so. Sometimes the snake is a hoop snake rolling along, and sometimes it is a snake completing a cosmic circle.
Another theme in the book is that of human relations. Serpentrope does not contain a love poem as I understand them, but there are multiple renderings of soured or difficult relations between couples. The concluding lines from the poem ‘Endure’ are one example:
… We gratify
what synapses are lit. Hullabaloo
is all that floats above—mere atmosphere.
What anchors? That’s a fixity less clear.
The reader of Serpentrope will soon see that Ball is no sentimentalist.
Poetry itself forms another theme in the book. There are multiple poems on the topic of poetry, a theme that first appears in the inscription that begins the book:
Teach a man to write poetry
and he will starve forever.
Ball begins the poem ‘Twickenham Stadium’ by stating ‘I’m not so much a poet as a wit,’ and then proceeds to compare himself and his work to the career of the American baseball player Harmon Killebrew, a Hall of Famer who, nonetheless, had some years with low numbers of runs batted in. Poets writing poems about poetry can be trying, but Ball pulls it off—in this case, with extended comparisons between his work and baseball. Let’s consider two techniques that I particularly admire in Ball’s work. The first is the clever enjambment, and the second is the killer concluding couplet. One of my favorite poems in the book is the sonnet ‘At the Funeral of a Former High School Crush,’ which begins with the wonderful enjambment
I memorized her purple halter top
The poem then describes time shared together in physics class, and concludes with this couplet that brings us back to the funeral of the title:
They found her with her head arrayed in glass
flung forward like a weightless, prescient gas.
I love that couplet. And many others in Ball’s book. One more example. In the poem ‘Slither,’ that begins with a quote from Coleridge referencing Ouroboros, the narrator learns that a walk with his lover is actually her way of finding a suitable place to terminate their relationship. She has chosen the bookstore where they met to end things in Ouroboran fashion, and the poem itself concludes:
… All along,
this princess had availed a serpent-guide.
I was the frog to her formaldehyde.
Serpentrope is a book of formal poems that really doesn’t feel like one. It treats a wide variety of topics (I should mention that Serpentrope contains poems on: the antediluvian apostasies of G. H. Pember; the difficulties in Ireland; and the nature of testimony in the aftermath of the mortgage meltdowns). There are wonderful gems, couplets, and full poems that sparkle and explode. Serpentrope is a virtuoso performance by a poet of wide-ranging intelligence whose careful use of form adds considerable impact to his work.
Nobody is listening to your telephone calls… But by sifting through this so-called ‘metadata’, [the intelligence community] may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.”
—President Obama, 7 June 2013
One of the blind spots of the digitized form derives, paradoxically, from its ravenous, undiscerning and all-seeing eye. Raw data has no introspective mechanism and affixes no value-coefficient to its own informational content. This evaluative process is left to external entities; sentient, sifting human beings—or their algorithm-proxies—who realize that within oceans of data, trophy catches are few and sea garbage is the norm. Actionable or useful data thus swims against near-insurmountable odds of detection. The ‘promotion’ from data to information requires human agency and recognition. How can humans accomplish this crucial anointing when information must be dredged from a great dismal data swamp that retraces God’s infinitude a little more each day?
The statistics are suitably staggering: According to a recent CSC study, data production will be 44 times greater in 2020 than it was in 2009. A July 2012 BT survey reported,
“…a quarter of the decision-makers surveyed predict that data volumes in their companies will rise by more than 60 percent by the end of 2014, with the average of all respondents anticipating a growth of no less than 42 percent.”
This fantastic upsurge in digital effluence is commonly known as Big Data.
Faced with towering silos of bric-a-brac, poets tend toward metaphysical swoons, certainly one technique for navigating the meta-morass. So consider this fair warning.
That said, I can’t help but think of Carl Jung’s Answer to Job. God is a stalking horse for today’s Big Data in the sense that His infinity induces a moral blindness that only Job, a human agent of particular discernment, can instruct Him through. Seeing everything is not unlike seeing nothing at all. Human insight, by contrast, is a narrowed gaze. Vision demands a focal point, a seeing-eye dog, a discrete POV. Poets are the woofers amidst the tweeters, our first-order data miners. They name things and in so doing give form to chaos.
Database administration is a degraded form of poetry, really a meta-poetry whose administrators play in a sandbox beside the legislators of the world. This latter poetic function Sven Birkerts, channeling Ranier Rilke, identifies as the human being’s seminal role—raising the world into consciousness, not just, “collectively, into a noosphere, and not digitally, into a cloud of data, but subjectively, inwardly, into language.” (“The Room and the Elephant”, Los Angeles Review of Books, 7 June 2011)
All that has first been named can be data tagged but only after our fervency—Rilke’s word—has expended itself. Thus, those who prioritize the Cloud have it backwards. Technologists are the post facto manipulators, the illusionists in our midst whereas poets keep it real. That’s why the latter can’t find jobs in a Big Data world. Birkerts quotes the following lines from Rilke’s “Ninth Elegy”:
Are we here perhaps just to say:
house, bridge, well, gate, jug, fruit tree, window—
at most, column, tower… but to say, understand this, to say it
as the Things themselves never fervently thought to be.
—(C. F. MacIntyre, Translator)
Birkerts and Rilke invite us back to Jung’s subjective self whose universe exists only because we have the eyes to (data) mine it. God recognizes Himself through our cognition. We suspect this pleases Him immensely. The Book of Job becomes a pre-Mosaic prototype for the Anthropic Principle. Data, by contrast, is a retrospective, a cataloguing of prior ‘authenticities’.
Far and away most data, if not much of life itself, is hardly worth our powers of recollection. Yet in the Digital Age, every traversal of Sisyphus’ hill becomes a discrete negotiation, an indexable transaction. By now Sisyphus’ travelogue would require a supercomputer. There is no human act or gesture so beneath our retrospective radar that it can anymore slip, blithely undetected, into the veils of time. The NSA and its commercial doppelganger, Facebook, are committed to the eternality of the less-than-mundane. Interestingly, Sisyphus’ punishment derived in part from chaining Thanatos, a ploy aimed literally at cheating death. Life seizes the moment. The life force doesn’t look back. Data storage makes its bones with the dead. All these data-dependent claims on our past help to encourage a retro-reptilian-hoarding reflex.
There’s existential philosophy; then there’s existential practicality. We compound Big Data’s overhang by adding to it daily. However, it’s in the here-and-now where the potential for comprehension is greatest. A host of nimble and proactive analytics tools loom on the horizon which will better prepare us for what Anukool Lakhina of Big Data company Guavus calls ‘knowing the now’ (“We Need to Prevent Insights from Dying in the Big Data Avalanche” Gigaom; 6 October 2012). Humanity’s accumulated now‘s form Big Data’s past. The future must be seized knowingly. We can ill-afford to dither and let it just happen.
The past will not be relinquished lightly as the bankers have our coupon books to keep track of. Old Power and Money cements its power on the backs of our deeply regretted past transactions. Usura’s how they make their game in the present and promise the future to the image of the past. They are the celebrants of stasis. Under their rubric, we are going nowhere fast. All these data-dependent claims on our past help to encourage a retro-reptilian-hoarding reflex. IBM Global Business Service’s Teresa Pritchard in a recent exchange called it Dino’s Albatross:
“…we now see the head looking behind at an enormous tail, a tail so heavy that the creature can hardly move forward. It is a tail comprised of hoarded information, kept without any measure of true value.”
Big Media casts its own Big Data footprint. We desecrate the up-close and sacred naming task with what novelist Don DeLillo calls white noise, that is, the make-work routine of papering over the hard work of consciousness-raising with a dust-layer of bytes and suspect media coordinates (or as DeLillo terms it, that “dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.’‘— White Noise). Mediation is a diversionary campaign that traffics in the propagandistic terms of clarification and distillation; or, if you prefer the Fox News coordinates, fair and balanced.
Big Media’s Big Data diverts us from the task of Big Apprehension. We are kept to the realm of the observable. All that can be measured is pored over as though nothing else exists while Keats’ infamous Vale toils at the crucial work of soul-making at the subjective ‘unobserved’ level. Yes of course, the poets’ by-product, poems, are in evidence on the web. But the process of manufacturing soul through suffering evades the artifactual record. This flattening of poetry into bytes abets a shadow-project to equate poetry with food recipes and baseball scores. Suddenly at the time they are needed most, poets are marginalized further.
Fortunately, regular folks are more than taking up the slack. In the social media realm, we have the power to avert much of the Big Data landslide if only we could stop chattering amongst ourselves, continually giving up banal lives and journeyman repasts that surely drive our overlords to an ever rising contempt. Frankly, who could blame the Illuminati for its machinations as, handed the mic, all we could think to tweet was what we had for breakfast? My point Mr. Everyman, is that your grating ignorance and predilection for Eggo’s may have bought you a dystopia that’ll hang around well past the dinner hour. I told you to brush up on your Adorno and Marcuse. But nooo, you wouldn’t leggo.
The real little man disease is well-earned envy as the floodgates of Facebook fly open only to reveal oceans of drivel. How oceanic, you ask? “Just two days of the current global data production, from all sources — five quintillion bytes (a letter of text equals one byte) — is about equal to the amount of information created by all the world’s conversations, ever, according to research at the University of California, Berkeley.” (“Sizing Up Big Data, Broadening Beyond the Internet”, by Steve Lohr, The New York Times, 19 June 2013)
One could be forgiven for wanting to head some of this yadda-yadda off at the pass before the Word becomes flesh to make its dwellings among us. I mean, I gotta be me, you gotta be you. But must our Eggo’s leave behind minable contrails? The collapse in embedded processor pricing will soon allow for smart toasters. Every appliance will have a snappy retort. Every briefcase will carry an airtight alibi. The world is irrevocably data and sensor-rich and there’s no going back.
Going forward then, how can we vouchsafe an authentic human sphere within this sea of data? or is ‘soul’ ripe for a digitized deconstruction? The trans-humanists suggest Job v.2 will be a robot sent to teach the machine the ineffable nature of soul. That’s provided the ineffable (that transcendent, ‘extra-data’ realm which literature purports to stalk) is indeed antithetical to data and not subsumable within a Big Data skein. Stephen Marche suggests as much:
“Literature cannot meaningfully be treated as data. The problem is essential rather than superficial: literature is not data. Literature is the opposite of data.” (“Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities”, Los Angeles Review of Books, 28 October 2012)
Marche’s essay title hat-tips a vast field of endeavor known as Digital Humanities to which he (and I) probably give shamefully short shrift. Some of the mandates emanating from this new academic wing are tantalizingly terrifying. Here, Bruno Latour is discussing nothing less than Big Data’s potential for cataloging the ‘inner workings’ of the soul:
“The precise forces that mould our subjectivities and the precise characters that furnish our imaginations are all open to inquiries by the social sciences. It is as if the inner workings of private worlds have been pried open because their inputs and outputs have become thoroughly traceable.”
— “Beware, Your Imagination Leaves Digital Traces”, Times Higher Education Literary Supplement, 6 April 2007
Wikileaks’ Julian Assange pointed out recently that the East German secret police employed ten percent of the population at one time or another as informants. That sort of high overhead will cripple any enterprise. No wonder the Soviet bloc collapsed. Fortunately, the fascio-corporatists have our backs. The genius of Facebook is that it is an emoticon-besotted surveillance apparatus through which friends rat out friends routinely, unwittingly and for free. Hey, if I’m sending my buds to the Gulag, I want beer money to help subsidize my tears.
Big Thinker Jaron Lanier proposes an even starker equivalence in his latest book Who Owns the Future?:
“Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for the value they contribute that can be steered or stored on a digital network.”
Despite his defense of regular folks, Lanier seems oddly acquiescent to our object status as though we are in fact mere data warehouses, albeit with a propped-open backdoor that encourages shoplifting and prevents equitable compensation. Nonetheless Lanier is onto something when he suggests the value-exchange is poorly understood by the average Facebook consumer-supplier.
In a nation of rip-offs, the thief is king, so it pays to study his M.O. Facebook aggressively runs all of its employees, regardless of formal function, through Big Data boot-camps in an effort to “promote a culture in which everyone uses data to test and ultimately roll out new products, design changes, and other improvements.” (“What I Learned at Facebook’s Big Data Boot-Camp”; CNN-Money-Fortune, by Michal Lev-Ram, 13 June 2013)
The Facebook micro-culture may augur the macro-culture, or is a nation of thieves unsustainable? Clearly, Facebook knows the trove over which it presides and the extractive capacity for all nearby hands to just dig in. Good for Facebook. Apply the distributive computing model over a massive pro bono user base, paint a solicitous happy face above the front door and the cost of data collection suddenly vanishes into the ether. Where the East Germans insisted on payment, we give ourselves and our loved ones up without a fight, without a nickel.
Alright, so everyone gets a shovel and we’ll dig ourselves to a collective nirvana. On the other hand (said one equivocating economist to another), might what Big Data pioneer Jeffrey Hammerbacher calls the impending renaissance of the ‘numerical imagination’ yield up the metrics of what poets have insisted on calling since time immemorial, soul? Perhaps there is no ghost in the machine. Perhaps it’s all machine. Perish the thought.
Poets notwithstanding, all that glistens on human lips has never been gold, anyway. That our fingers excel at capturing every demiurge now with dispatch on one PDA or another does nothing to burnish the archival value of the utterance. Would Zeus have been less cruel, more circumspect in his meting out of punishment, had it also fallen within his purview to store the repetitions of his wrath?
Perhaps human data generation should consist of a finite annual allotment of bytes per year, per capita much like a carbon tax. No doubt Al Gore can invent the apt paradigm. Perhaps we are discovering the darker side of near-universal literacy, you know, those same seven billion souls who can’t wait to share what they had for breakfast on Facebook.
Are we being incorrigible elitists even to suggest such things? The carbon analogy is not as facetious as it sounds. In some sense, data is an exhalation. Of course there’s money in the quotidian. Facebook makes a fortune monetizing our errant chatter. But is there transformative meaning? Surely we’re not here only to make money (an imaginal exercise itself) only to have them listen to us very closely so that they can take it all back again—echoes of Sisyphus in his green-eyeshade permutation? Studies have shown three-quarters of all data has the retention value of an empty gum wrapper.
No, the human race didn’t wait for the Digital Age to dawn so that it could suddenly exhale en masse. What has changed is that we are all now affixed with carbon dioxide monitoring devices, low-cost handheld appliances that record our every hiccup. Our heart beats. Our data emits. Barely audible, off-hand remarks—veritable verbal tics—that our own spouses have the good sense not to query for clarification are being cataloged by digital devices.
Nor am I deaf to the durable idealistic notion that all human musings (nothing less than the murmuring of souls) are inherently valuable, certainly of a higher order than, say, other excretions, e.g., perspiration, waste product and the like. Indeed the democratic impulse is offended by the notion that quotidian effusions do not merit attention. This was not always the case.
In his 1994 essay, “The Future of the Book”, Umberto Eco reminds us that broadly prevalent literacy is a relative blip on the human culture timeline. All the hand-wringing over our TV-besotted age (a phenomenon Eco refers to sardonically as “mass media criticism of mass media”) forgets the profound illiteracy that preceded it for many centuries: “We can complain that a lot of people spend their day watching TV and never read a book or a newspaper, and this is certainly a social and educational problem, but frequently we forget that the same people, a few centuries ago, were watching at most a few standard images and were totally illiterate.”
Eco delineates further between publishing and communicating. With the advent of handheld devices, many of us have migrated unwittingly into the realm of publishing (fossilized entrails) versus ephemeral (sound wave-dissipating) communications. Indeed the NSA has conscripted all of us into the publishing game without so much as a referendum. Police states are funny that way. Every hiccup has a shelf-life. Long live the permanent record.
For the moment, Moore’s Law is still finding cupboard space for our personal effusions. But even that venerable efficiency curve is flashing the fault-lines of fatigue. (Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku predicts its collapse in ten years.) Only Uncle Sam has the real estate and the mindless profligacy to even try and keep abreast of the tsunami. In a Russia Today interview (4 December 2012), whistleblower and former NSA crypto-mathematician William Binney suggested well before the Snowden revelations that the NSA is collecting everything from everybody (what a shrewd discerning beast, that Uncle Sam!), thus the need for the 1.5 million square foot, $2 billion data storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah:
“I don’t think they are filtering [the totality of society’s data]. They are just storing it. I think it’s just a matter of selecting when they want it. So, if they want to target you, they would take your attributes, go into that database and pull out all your data.” (William Binney, “Everyone in U.S. Under Virtual Surveillance”)
On one level, the NSA’s strategic plan seems to have stepped out of a French existentialist novel. It collects the data because, well, it and the data are there. Of course, part of the plotline involves forgetting that the Constitution is there, too—or once was, anyway. For the moment, storage capability and analytics techniques are evolving briskly and the government is flush enough to afford them. The day has arrived when, if the government decides it doesn’t like you, it will simply data-mine you to backstop all the reasons why it doesn’t like you.
Alas, profit-making entities do not enjoy the same boundless access to acres of Utah desert and public largesse. Big Brother enjoys scalability whereas profit centers cannot forgo front-end data analytics techniques. Capitalists have to take out the trash because data warehousing is a huge and growing expense. In a perverse twist on the crowding-out effect, the private sector could ultimately contract under the onerous burden of data storage costs (even as the business value of the stored data is known to be de minimus), while the public sector sits smug atop your paramour’s pet name. You call that fair, Mr. Orwell?
Studies have shown three-quarters of all data has the retention value of an empty gum wrapper. This is one way of saying the legal profession has zero interest in its liability value (and don’t think for a minute that defense against potential lawsuits isn’t a big part of the anal retention bias). IBM’s Pritchard, again:
A large part of the inability to push a delete button is the result of legislation requiring businesses to maintain certain identifiable information to ensure transparency when ostensibly working on behalf of stockholders. In addition, a business of any size being sued, or suing to protect its rights, better be able to produce evidence to prove its case. Court sanctions have been swift and harsh in the evidentiary arena. Attorneys have responded to keep it all. Attorneys are focused on risk. They look in one direction, strictly adhering to the law, torpedoes be damned.
Fortunately, there are countervailing forces within the enterprise. IT departments, threatened by the predations of data storage costs on their budgets (and the resultant brakes on innovation and development) are as eager to take out the trash as in-house general counsel are to let the refuse just pile up. Nor did enterprising CIO’s climb the corporate ladder for the purpose of becoming graveyard caretakers. And yet a recent McKinsey & Company report (“Big Data: The Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition, and Productivity, May 2011) projects 40 percent growth in global data generation per annum versus five percent growth in global IT spending. With fewer allocable dollars contending with explosive and unabated data generation, Big Data risks becoming the dumpster that ate The Next Big Thing.
How will innovation maintain a place at the IT table? Slowly, senior management is coming to realize that the security blanket is really an anvil in disguise. The fact, is Big Data threatens to be a major job and productivity killer. With more bytes and less people, the machine wins again. Frankly, how many more battles can We the People afford to lose?
Even today, only two percent of all existent human data is on the Internet. Oh good, only 98 percent more to plow through! Rilke would be struck by the frivolity of the task, indexing the totality of (ever-expanding) human data, tantamount, one suspects, to moving every grain of sand on every beach from the left side of the beach to the right side and vice versa.
Suppose Sisyphus managed just once to tip his boulder over the crest of the hill. Would it not just careen into a meta-valley on the other side? How is our wisdom, our knowledge enhanced by the reptilian impulse to catalog everything under the sun or, as Sven Birkerts characterizes, the replicative meaninglessness of the so-called ‘digital path’, to invent:
“…a parallel realm… [that] would move us away by building a new world, with new human rules, and placing it squarely atop the old.” (“The Room and the Elephant”, Sven Birkerts, Los Angeles Review of Books, 7 June 2011)
Should the day ever arrive (it would have to be at the end of history) when the universe becomes fully indexed on the Internet, does the Internet not become the universe? or at the least a parallel meta-universe? What will we do then? Re-roll our boulders to their originating valleys? Admit the inevitable and collapse our souls into avatars? Who will conduct the first-order, up-close reconnoiter, what Emerson, anticipating Rilke describes as, “…the poet nam[ing] the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other”? Metadata names names, making it at least one step removed from the poet’s sacred project. Our transformative energies are wasted on filing chores, relegating us to glorified machine-language adjuncts. Steve Lohr looks ahead to this very prospect:
“Decisions of all kinds, [Big Data experts] say, will increasingly be made on the basis of data and analysis rather than experience and intuition — more science and less gut feel…what psychologists call ‘anchoring bias.’” (“Sizing Up Big Data, Broadening Beyond the Internet”, The New York Times, 19 June 2013)
Anchoring bias sounds a lot like poetic voice, that woefully inadequate yet durable nemesis of analytics everywhere, the human soul. The impending Big Data train-wreck cries out for a deeper reckoning to which we must rally our poet-technologists, all five of them. If we would only self-listen with proper gnostic intensity our data footprints would collapse like the nervous babel they mostly are. Big Data is the shadow-form of all we could not bring ourselves to reflect upon. Intuition will not be indexed.
Therein lies its value. Intuitives risk being hunted to extinction by the NSA State. If you cannot tweet it, it will not exist, an assault on Rilkean consciousness Patriot Act IV will surely codify. The apotheosis of P. K. Dick’s black iron prison (and Bentham’s Panopticon) is the Internet in its late-stage authoritarian form. Even Hammerbacher asks rhetorically if belatedly, “What does it mean to live in an era where things and people are infinitely observed?” Thank you, Mr. Hammerbacher, for tossing circumspection on the pyre of scientific advance.
But then, scientists are famous for plunging ahead and leaving others to look like ridiculously out-of-step Luddites. Allow me to dig my heels in first: If the wonders of Hiroshima have taught us anything, it is that the huge potential of Big Data will be met with a mushroom cloud of compensatory magnitude. Thus, it is precisely the breathless claims of Big Data analytics that have me shaking in my boots. We must relight the early Christian catacombs somewhere off the grid as the soul is being driven underground, once again.
I’m also prompted to offer an updated definition of that cagey yet ineradicable word ‘soul’ as being the human region which proves resistant to data collection and surveillance, not because we erect a killer (and thus someday, ‘with the right technology’, surmountable) firewall; but because there is something within the very fabric of soul that is antithetical to data collection and looms one step beyond Hammerbacher’s ‘infinite’ field of observation. The proof for soul? That Sisyphus’ punishment is so incomprehensible in magnitude and scale that no data silo can ever hope to contain it in the shuttered language of binaries. Capture is impossible. Only poetry can evoke it.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. If the soul proves to be but a billion points of convergent data, we will brush through the trans-human era on the way to machine-hegemony and human extinction. There’s a whole human movement working earnestly towards this capitulation called Singularitarianism —how traitorous, how charming. Absent this forever vouchsafed realm, the poetic project collapses like a metaphysical hoax perpetrated against the centuries. As goes poetry, so goes the soul. Historic man cannot be so far behind.
In the meantime, we are high-tech beasts of burden dragging stones towards a Great Collective Pyramid of Cyber. Had we realized the Digital Revolution would enlist us in a massive water-carrying project instead of emancipating us to pursue a Greater Meaning (the manna-headstone of information), we might never have picked up those damned Blackberry’s in the first place. Now we’re hooked. But please, just hold that thought. Don’t type it.
This essay appeared previously at Pop Matters, September 2011
There’s no doubt we are being trained into voyeuristic equanimity. When the word “surveillance” no longer has a pejorative ring, you will know we have fully arrived. It’ll be about the same time you manage to prance naked through a roomful of strangers with nary a blush. Exposure will usurp privacy as a societal ideal.
Here’s a statistic which, at first glance, packs a Pac-Man visual wallop. YouTube receives 48 hours of uploaded video every minute. That’s right. Two days worth of stuff happening (though not necessarily hap’nin stuff) arrives every 60 seconds. Clearly the digital world is gobbling up the known world at a remarkable clip. How much more voracious can it get? Well conceivably, if all seven billion earthlings were armed with camcorders, seven billion minutes of available ‘per minute’ video would result—and we haven’t even counted Big Brotherly surveillance cams and other unmanned video devices.
Indeed at some point, if we haven’t reached it yet, pre-Internet “legacy” video will have been entirely subsumed. Of course copyright issues are a current sticking point. But these will be ironed out in time through one payment regime or another. Viewed in this context, 48 hours per minute represents a tiny fraction of observable human reality. We have barely scraped the opening credits of this movie.
We seem headed towards a videosphere that captures and subdues the totality of human activity like some goopy, billion-eyed, grass-roots-driven surveillance cam. Perhaps the social utility of eliminating torture, reducing human rights abuses, locating lost children, etc., will mitigate the intrusiveness of mounting a camera on every earthly noggin. That may well be how the Hobson’s Choice is posed when the government arrives to affix your Halliburton-issue mandatory head-cam. We are already affixing windows into our souls, certainly our beliefs and buying habits, by tossing out the welcome mat to Facebook’s obsequious advance.
Talk about putting lipstick on an Animal Farm pig. One can imagine George Orwell expressing bemusement at the inroads social media has managed to achieve. Have civil liberties ever been handed over with such eager abandon and at such a bewildering rate of speed? Somewhere in the patriot-wing of Heaven, Johnny Tremain is bemoaning a lost, misspent youth as, across Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia every day, nearly 400,000 people join Facebook—an apparatus that will almost certainly be turned to more nefarious ends once some unforeseen (to our eyes) tipping-point is attained. Taken at face value, smiley-faced emoticons are, well, blank-faced bits and bytes. So I wouldn’t put much credence in the fluffy social veneer. It’s merely the enticement that frames a gambit of far larger ambitions.
When I think of Facebook, I can’t help but picture that scene in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where the nice candy man entices the children onto his wonderful candy truck only to have the confectionery facade collapse and the child-catcher’s black cage appear. By that time, the children are captives of the cage. Off they go up the mountain to face their fate at Castle Google.
Betting on the continued geniality of social media seems a high-stakes gamble, and for what, the convenience of connecting with high school sweethearts? In the unconnected days of yore, the ‘barriers to discovery’ made it easy to let sleeping flames lie. Often gumshoe detectives were needed to track down the faraway objects of our adolescent affections. There’s a recent statistic, offered up by someone in a white lab-coat, suggesting 20 percent of all divorce petitions in America today cite Facebook as a contributing factor.
I’ve met three couples over the last few months who are reunited childhood sweethearts. They credited their rapprochement to the Internet, in one case classmates.com; the other two are indebted to Facebook. I’m suspicious of idealized childhood sweethearts only because I have a hunch they grow up to be garden-variety pains-in-the-asses just like regular people. The point is folks are harking back to a gauzy, bygone era, splitting from real lives and real families to chase interludes that in most cases are best left in the mists of time and 10th grade study hall. Think well my friend, before you accept that friend request from the high school prom queen.
But suppose these retro-lovebirds are on the cusp of a broadly based, dump-reality trend? Though resembling unhappy middle-aged adults on a sentimental, adolescent tear, they are in fact a vanguard of cyberspace Amerigo Vespucci’s. Idealization can be a real high-bar bitch. Are pixels on the verge of overwhelming primates? Speaking of the agony of da feet, what chance do a husband’s smelly socks stand (yes, some socks can actually stand) against the odorless, tasteless, colorless sublimity of a match.com Prince Charming with a 20-year-old profile pic? People, the real kind, better clean up their acts fast or it will be curtains for the quiet desperation of real life. Then who will stock the ponds of our Internet soul-mate searches?
Nothing that happens in Vegas will ever stay in Vegas again. Future social status will be measured by how many hours of video down-time an individual is allowed. In a clandestine take on Club Med, there will be ‘black-resorts’, holiday locales where, for a substantial fee, head-cams can be left in a locker. This privilege will be reserved for the extremely well-connected. It will also necessitate some level of government approval. (You wouldn’t want well-heeled terrorists vacationing off-cam with you.) People will relish unobservable moments like gourmet coffee breaks. Tomorrow’s Castaneda’s will descend into the world of the unobserved reporting back on a spirit-realm beyond the videosphere. Children will giggle over their grandparents’ tales of getting lost for six hours in a forest or slipping away to get married. By then, there will be an embedded sensibility that the videosphere is reality. The state will use its police power to enforce this sensibility. But there won’t be much need for enforcement as the populace will have embraced it.
This is why video ubiquity is so prized by the powerful. Shadowing reality’s every move, it supplants, and in a very odd sense, repeals the need for a first-order reality. Observation will become the new action. Virtual reality games will become so compelling that authentic action will seem tame by comparison. Venturing outside has always been fraught with small nuisances: inclement weather, the chance of a fender-bender on the way to the park, mosquito bites, high gas prices. As virtual reality improves its game, authentic experience will confront fresh, new hurdles. The passivity feedback loop will yield more passivity. Legs will atrophy. Dissent, too.
Sex—a practice once held to be among the most private, intimate of human acts—adorns the Internet like tits-and-ass-print wallpaper. Even if sex is not part of the control paradigm, it’s fun as hell to talk about—so bare with me. In a classic media-informing-message dynamic, the video-ubiquity of sex accentuates its visual, surface features. The camera favors physicality, not spirituality. It charts movement not catharsis. To even the most casual observer of pornography (or so it’s been reported to me), the sexual activity portrayed reveals a dispiriting sameness. After all, two arms, two legs, a smattering of additional anatomical features and what really are the possible permutations?
I mean, since the product launch of the Kama Sutra manual in the 2nd century CE, pigs haven’t exactly sprouted new wings. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous pornography benchmark was, “I know it when I see it.” Indeed seeing it, seeing anything, is the eclipsing sense-faculty of the videosphere. Perhaps the real obscenity of pornography is that it mounts yet another assault on the unseen, as though Lady Gaga wasn’t enough (though I find her better seen than heard.) If observability cannot be produced, the veracity of the unseen will increasingly be questioned. The unspoken intimacies of sex will face an increasing struggle to assert their continued presence. By the way, anyone is free to join this struggle by having tons of sex behind closed doors with the lights out. If you need a partner, there’s always match.com.
In a similar vein, the realm of metaphysics—souls, spirits, Big Foot and the like—will suffer a further cultural blow as an abysmal threshold of observability subjects it to ever-deepening wells of skepticism. The electro-shock treatment should have been enough. However, this trend promises to push the voices in my head right over the edge.
Speaking of insanity, a brisk walk down any main street in America today provides the best argument against grooming further madness. We are awash in it—madness that is. And yet the Internet marries a hall of mirrors to an already-dicey population. There is the apocryphal tale of a lesbian who developed an intense multi-year relationship with a long-distance lady. After months of rejecting opportunities to meet in the flesh, the “lady” finally conceded that she was no lady at all. In fact “she” was a burly truck-driver from Duluth named Matt. It is a special hell to be separated from your soul-mate. It is yet another inner circle of hell to discover that your soul-mate consists of tape, glue and countless lonely hours spent at Beefy Moe’s Truck Stop. The last report of the “real” lady was that she had dematerialized, leaving no forwarding IP address. I’m thinking she’s a forlorn ghost circling evermore the cloud’s infernal machine.
I know what you’re thinking: “Hey dude, it’s one thing to record every human moment and gesture. But it’s quite another to sift that mountain of data and extract actionable information.” First of all, please don’t call me dude. But yes, this would be true except that new computers with astonishing processing power will break the data-information logjam. Huge video-data-mining computers endowed with powerful algorithms will isolate and identify, from scads of home-movie-like material, problematic body language, giveaway nervous tics, gestures of implied criminality, physical features that suspiciously resemble many of my former girlfriends, etc. This will birth a whole new genus of political prisoner. Eccentricity, the very wellspring of human creativity, will be singled out for particular scrutiny, if not hounded out of existence altogether. The poet and artist class will be decimated. Plebeian uniformity will become the new aesthetic.
There’s no doubt we are being trained into voyeuristic equanimity. When the word “surveillance” no longer has a pejorative ring, you will know we have fully arrived. It’ll be about the same time you manage to prance naked through a roomful of strangers with nary a blush. Exposure will usurp privacy as a societal ideal. The current crop of reality shows are soldiers in the trenches, chipping away at the gauzy veneer and bourgeoisie bad faith of distortive production values. We watch people, celebrities often, brushing their teeth or divvying up household chores without the least sense anymore of a private space being invaded. Besides sanctioning our observation of once-private activities, these reality shows achieve the added benefit of demystifying celebrity-hood generally.
Great money and effort was expended by ‘40s-era movie studios to cultivate a divine separateness among its stable of stars. Since the onset of the television age, we have been eroding this mystique. Power is no longer served today by fostering a coterie of mortal gods. Hollywood was constructed around the rather low-order power model of dream-fulfillment: providing fantasy in exchange for money. Today, power is in the early stages of donning its invisibility cloak. Inducing envy and longing (and selling the products that answer those yearnings) serves no further purpose.
The current phase could be called the Great Leveling Project. This is a social engineering algorithm. By reducing standard deviation in a system, the system approaches stasis. In short, the more similar to one another that we can be made, the closer the perfect control ideal becomes. Disruptive social movements, i.e., trends with the potential to buck the system, vanish; not because they must be suppressed, but because everyone is, temperamentally, of a likeness.
Money was a great entrancement, the ultimate carrot affixed to the ultimate stick. But it was always merely an instrumentality, a means to a moneyless end. Google parlayed the traditional metrics of money, market capitalization, purchasing power, etc., to reach precisely this point. However, at a certain point-beyond, control becomes the new currency. Just as the logic and psychology of money appears to be breaking down, money is bowing out, having served its interim purpose well.
This is where the gold-bugs are mistaken. We are not engaged in the age-old process of currency debasement, i.e., sliding down the credibility curve from fiat currency to hard money. We are vaulting off the venerable store-of-value continuum altogether. Once the threshold of complete control is crossed, money will no longer matter. The motive for it is withering away. There will only be total perfect control. Perfect control won’t feel like control. It will feel like oxygen which is to say, we won’t feel it at all.
How we reach a totalitarian state is the difference between consent and coercion. This is a crucial point, ‘the manufacture of consent’ is a term coined by Walter Lippmann and later developed by Noam Chomsky. For perfect control to claim legitimacy, it must appear as though we have brought the condition upon ourselves. Though no great fan of Orwell, Chomsky expanded upon Lippmann’s phrase as, “an Orwellian euphemism for thought control. The idea is that in a state such as the U.S., where the government can’t control the people by force, it had better control what they think.”
Why, you may ask, must perfect complete control be concerned about its legitimacy? Well, it’s a little tautological, but if total control feels like suppression, it falls short of perfection. We have to build it. We have to embrace it. O’Brien could just as easily kill 1984’s Winston. However, it’s important that Winston’s consent be extracted.
Human imagination can still subvert the machine. Imagination is the unseen screen against which video can only aspire to the crudest approximations. You must become an unabashed weirdo, a bedeviling mass of contradictions to the reductionist Gestapo-template.
Manufactured consent is a fascinating, if eerie, concept. Let’s say, over a generation or two, certain media masters succeed in manipulating a society into the enjoyment of only two things: Simon Cowell and Harry Potter. Within these two spheres of interest, ‘libertarian’ latitude is allowed. None of this goes down in an overt or suppressive way. The people have exactly what they want. Of course someone worked diligently behind the scenes to conform their interests to this restricted sphere of activity. When was the last time you visited the local library to see whether Catcher in the Rye was still a state-approved title? What, you no longer visit the library? Then it shouldn’t concern you that we burned Salinger out back with Twain.
Does a burned book make a crackle in an oblivious society? When freedom of expression atrophies to the point where only a handful of “expression-tracts” remain, no one expresses outrage over the huge chunks of culture gone AWOL.
Manufactured consent is the velvety sieve that delivers tomorrow’s authoritarian system. Today’s America is already an authoritarian system wrapped in a democratic mythos and a red-blue fictional narrative. In many respects the Internet cloud crashed the party. Slowly it is being recast in an authoritarian frame.
The huge tragedy is that we are handing this wonderful distributed system, the Internet, back over to centralized overlords. The topology of the Internet meshes with radical democracy. In many ways, the Internet is a fulfillment of democratic aspirations. Every node is equal. The websites of the powerful begin with www just like Pee-wee Herman’s. Thoughis taken, Godaddy assures us can be had for $11.99 a month. Yes, the cloud is nothing but the sum of its nodes. We have arrived: E Pluribus Unum!
There’s cachet in the obverse of that venerable Latin phrase, as well. In his landmark TV essay, 1993’s E Unibus Pluram, the late David Foster Wallace explored the layers of irony that govern television as a cultural phenomenon. Of course his essay was written prior to the blight of reality TV, you know, during the halcyon era of, ah, Friends. There are for example the people on TV who know they’re being watched and ‘act’ accordingly (in fact we have a name for them, actors.) Then there are the watchers who often love nothing more than to hate the people they are watching while at the same time envying or worshipping, the people who play the people. This synopsis hardly does justice to Wallace’s elaborate investigation (intended largely for a fiction-writer audience.)
Irony shares a common feature with money. Both require a split-screen. Money facilitates transactions between two parties. Irony permits asynchronous appraisals between two points-of-view. When Shakespeare’s prophecy is fulfilled and the world truly becomes a fully-non-collapsible, rotating stage, the bifurcation of screen and sofa, us and them, will wither away because the ubiquity of the observable will extinguish it. The incongruities that allow irony, two discrete observation posts, will be simultaneously exposed and melded into an “indistinguishable one”. Ironic distance will collapse.
Power accrues and never disbands. There is this chaste notion that the Rothschild family acquired huge swathes of earthly wealth and power only to, what, forsake it all? This view commits yet another variant of the fallacy of mistaking the unseen for the nonexistent. When a certain critical mass of power is reached, the ego-need to parade it disappears. Only the nouveau riche seek the cover of People magazine, whereas real multi-generational power is comfortable in its own brocade skin. There’s no one left to impress, no one to curry favor from for the purpose of securing a promotion. This is because, in certain rarefied strata of society, there are no promotions.
While I’m not a wild-eyed conspiratorial type, having invoked that surname, it’ll be interesting to see if I make it through ‘til morning. There’s little question that wealth has been on an inexorable ascent back into the pockets of the well-heeled. After a brief flirtation with middle-classes and libertarian ideals, societies are returning to their inherent plutocratic predispositions. For the most part, they are accomplishing this in a silent “trickle-up” fashion. Remarkably, the hue and cry one might expect has, for all appearances, been “manufactured” away.
What is the only defense, you ask? We need the poet’s eccentricity, but on a massive (though not mass) scale. Yes, you too can be a poet and it won’t even cost you $19.95. Forget, if you can, all the word-fixation that clouds the essential orientation that is poetry. You can polish your metaphors later. We need poets in their natural role as agitators of the status quo.
How does a poet put one foot in front of the other? If the received wisdom turns right, he turns left until such time as he finds himself accompanied by a growing army of like-minded poets. Like-mindedness is the poison, not the antidote. When the antidote becomes the poison, as it is so often does, he crouches down and howls at the moon. Or he climbs a nearby tree. Human imagination can still subvert the machine. Imagination is the unseen screen against which video can only aspire to the crudest approximations. You must become an unabashed weirdo, a bedeviling mass of contradictions to the reductionist Gestapo-template.
The Spanish Civil War was an indispensable crucible for birthing socially-astute poets (not to mention that aspect of poetry which one runs the risk of overstressing in times of great social need, the poems themselves): Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz; then the martyrs, Federico Garcia Lorca and Miguel Hernandez.
Vallejo’s poem Mass could just as well be an inverted parable for that corpse-like Mohican, the last man to adopt Facebook:
At the end of the battle the fighter lay dead. A man came to him
and said: ‘Don’t die! I love you too much!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.
Two came to him and again said:
‘Don’t leave us! Take heart!
Come back to life!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.
Then twenty, a hundred, a thousand,
Five hundred thousand, came, crying:
‘So much love and yet so powerless against death!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.
Millions surrounded him,
‘Brother, don’t leave us!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.
Then, all the men on earth
stood round him. The corpse eyed them sadly,
overwhelmed. He got up slowly,
embraced the first man, started to walk…
(translated by Paul O’Prey)
I’m reluctant to offer much more on this subject for fear of spawning poetry collectives. That would ruin the whole thing. Poets must be solitary and profoundly disconnected. Librarians and Facebook groups turn them into schools and movements. Gathered up, even with the best of intentions, a poet’s singular vision dissolves into incoherency or mildly stirring slogans. We have so many venues for the muffled shuffle of the crowd’s feet. Facebook is only the latest, and most efficient, gatherer in a long, ignoble line. A poetic sensibility is the only bulwark against the overwhelming, regimenting forces of conformance, the prelude to totalitarian hell. Yes, some ineffable Fuhrer may be waiting for us behind the Internet storm-cloud. By spewing torrents of earnest, albeit journeyman poetry from all corners of the globe, we can extend the game until, say, about 2018. As for reaching 2020 in a reasonably unshackled condition, I just don’t see us having the poetic vision for it.
A sonnet on the Iggster. Also, an essay from my Jung-Bowie blog Red Book Red Sail about Iggy Pop in ’71.
From now on, my head won’t look down to a magazine
Rather, it will contemplate the night
And its bright stars,
And so, no more clichés.–From Octavio Paz’ ‘No More Clichés’
The drumbeat for ever more inventive poetry is a clichéd refrain that champions newness for newness’ sake. No one wants to be seen loitering around Grecian urns, if it can be avoided. Poetasters instead like to imagine themselves intrepid Ponce de Leons navigating uncharted seas. This pioneering spirit is not restricted to image and subject matter. Like Nietzsche’s Turin horse, language is forever being prodded forward, even when it might be at the end of its enunciatory tether. Mutter, ich bin dumm.
Clichés are the terra firma of the widely received. Call me a dull Thomas, but I’ve learned some really neat things in the land of bread and circuses. Clichés say a lot about how we think. You’d have to be crazy as a loon to discard them outright. Moreover indiscriminate rule-based pruning seems presumptuous in the extreme. Claiming maximum prerogative for the poet, Hart Crane spoke of the ‘logic of metaphor’ being “organically entrenched in pure sensibility”. As clichés are so often built on metaphor and simile, denying their use in all cases trespasses upon the poet’s unfettered access to his own separate but equal logical praxis.
This may be a jurisdictional dispute. English-speakers would never think to impose rules of grammar on Spanish. Who the hell has the right to legislate poetry but poets themselves? Beneath so-called dead language, there’s often a pent-up ghost murmuring a twice-told tale –or is it a dead man unable to tell incriminating tales? Actually it’s both. The thinking is that clichés are too-well-trod; apt perhaps but overused. The aptness fascinates me. I want to know why certain words and phrases acquit our collective cognition like a well-beaten path. Suddenly, as some arbiter never fails to instruct us, we are called to abandon a journey that transported our fathers as though all portentousness has been summarily beaten from the road well-travelled. Surely some ivory tower conspiracy lurks behind this squeeze play?
T.S. Eliot pressed the whole notion of squeezing in poetry when he famously and derisively coined the term “lemon-squeezer school of criticism.” Since then, anyone applying too much pressure to poetry, no matter the utensil, is suspect in my book; maybe in your book too. What are you reading? Speaking of reading books, dilettantes do it all the time (speaking of reading) as the actual reading part can be an arduous task. At the very least, harping on about the proliferation of clichés implies frequency of encounter, a condition attainable only through wide reading. So there is a self-serving predilection buried in the complaint itself.
Indeed writer Kazuo Ishiguro accuses cliché warriors of being armed to the teeth with elitist disdain. Mr. Ishiguro, a Booker Prize winner, is no slouch. So his fondness for repetition probably bears repeating as I am just about to do. Note that the teeth cliché is at my instigation and not his. (Keep your eye-teeth peeled as, a tooth fairy told me, more dental work follows):
I feel that for writers, an obsession with what is elegant or what is a cliché or not a cliché can become very inhibiting….When you write fiction you have to be prepared to adopt the language of everyone that you want to mimic. Prohibitions have behind them a kind of snobbery or fear of being seen as lower middle class.”
–from ‘Kazuo Ishiguro On Clichés’
Clearly bourgeoisie pettiness is fanning false consciousness again. Philip Hensher points his finger too at that striving, sneering ‘someone’ in a recent Telegraph article, “the budding writer has been told that clichés are to be avoided at all cost – “like the plague”, someone once said to [him]…” To all self-appointed, self-contradicting literary mavens, I say a pox on all your plagues. At least to this proud dolt of working class lineage, cliché admonitions already border on cliché, going in one ear and out the other, I believe from right ear to left, as clichés rarely come out of left field. I will not throw the towel in on them categorically. Sometimes my curiosity kills a dead-cat-bounce (a teetering orange tabby formerly known as Invention). Just as often my inquiries spur a formal inquest or foil a premature autopsy: ‘Gendarme, this creature is not quite dead!’
Perhaps clichés are the mark of linguistic failure. Perhaps this is the narrowest of failures. Perhaps it is no failure at all. Christopher Ricks says, “with a true poet, the linguistic concerns are a corollary of a way of looking at life.” A cunning linguist should never be a lapdog to rule-based poetry. To the extent a poem avails hackneyed language, it is almost certainly more than the sum of its hackneyed language anyway.
We should leave it to gifted poets to attempt resurrection on what is widely deemed dead as a doornail. Idioms for example (a form of cliché) can capture a regional flavor the poet is striving to convey. Those who invalidate poetry on the prima facie evidence of clichés are squeezing too hard. There is no kitchen appliance up to the task of poetry or else we would have ceded stanzas to toasters long ago. Someone should be coaxing cliché towards a new lease on life. Heidegger argued that a key responsibility of poets lies in the resuscitation of language. To do this, poets may have to be knee-deep in cliché where the work is hardest.
Cliché possesses no existential weight. Suspend the predations of time and the perceived offense vanishes. In the fullness of time, language’s evocative power hovers like an eternal constant. Frequency of use is a red badge of verbiage. Thus at best, the charge is a flimsy one and rooted in temporalities: we, or a steady succession of we’s, simply wore the language out, through no fault of the latter. There are just too damn many of us for language to bear much novelty for very long. So tread lightly on the best foot forward. The right foot of the Vatican’s Bronze Statue of St. Peter has been worn away from the countless caresses of ardent pilgrims. Should this precipitate an indictment of St. Peter or a rousing affirmation of his ability to move souls? A victim of history, clichéd language is being persecuted, oddly enough, for its efficacy. How unfair.
Thus clichés fall hard on the future. As if onerous debt was not enough, our children inherit a mortgaged language. Early arrivers got a free lunch, whereas late-comers have little choice but to labor under an inherited fatigue. Other mens habits convict us. Some Royal We has deigned that we may applaud, under our breaths, habitually overused language with historical appreciation, but never contemporary usage.
At the end of the day, we find our overlords hopelessly erring on the side of cliché-avoidance. (Ishiguro again: “I find phrases like…‘at the end of the day’ very deep. ‘At the end of the day,’ is full of stoic ruefulness. It’s very close to reflecting the human condition”.) We need not shuffle nervously from foot to foot just because the most comfortable shoes in our closet happen also to be the most worn. Indeed there’s more at work here than dusty old coteries of ‘forward-looking’ professors. Our fetish for the shiny-new, yet another manifestation of consumerism usurping culture, works its own alienating effects on comfortable language. You might say we are being tugged on one end by a well-heeled elite and on the other by the journeyman agony of da feet. Clichés can keep our feet on the ground and our heads out of the clouds, if we would only unlace our style consciousness and avant-garde fixations.
One can easily succumb to dead seriousness on matters such as these. Remember, all that’s required for levity to prevail is for wrist-slitters to sit on their hands and do nothing. Or so we thought. There’s a saying, by now cliché, certainly passé and not everyone’s soufflé, that it takes 43 muscles to frown and only 17 to smile. Thus smiling is easier. Still others say it takes four carets in a row before your cleverness really hits its stride. These formulaic notions should be rejected with the all the strength of our vowels.
Enter Science, that most serious pursuit, to turn urban legend on its head, making every smile a frown. David H. Song, MD, FACS, plastic surgeon and assistant professor at the University of Chicago Hospital, reports that it takes 11 muscles to frown and 12 to smile. Suddenly humor is seriousness without the long face, an uphill slog where a muscle runs through it. We could knit our brows over the sheer precariousness of laughter, but one tiny sprain to the mug, Bub, and guffaws lose their game. It takes a village to raise one peal of laughter, certainly two villagers to lend a joke its ricochet. This makes us all a hop, skip and a jump away from a string of heartbreaking losses, and that’s nothing to snigger at over the garden-wall.
The poet’s prerogative supersedes all critical demarcations. His tongue will not be cowed by cagey admonitions from culture’s stopwatch vultures. How else but in his own quirky voice and with the language that greets him (as much as he, it) can a poet offer anything at all?
A variation of this poem appears in my poetry book, ‘Serpentrope‘