You are confirmed in this belief when the reader proceeds to spend half of his allotted time reading from a densely theoretical introduction to his poems that he himself has written. It is full of ironically employed clichés, such as “Progress goes forward,” & “I have never read this poem the same way twice & think it would be impossible to do so.”
The main thing, you gather, is that meaning is not merely suspect but wholly fraudulent. The work in question consists entirely of one-stanza “poems” each of which may be taken as an interpretation of the one-word title, “Progress” (in which this avant-garde poet does not, of course, believe). “Meaning discovers a method,” he says. Therefore his method is anti-methodical. “Every stanza is modular,” he continues, & you shiver, remembering the German medievalist Uwe Poerksen’s analysis of contemporary linguistic malaise: The tyranny of a modular language.
He reads in a flat monotone enlivened only by the slight falls in intonation at the ends of “sentences.” Anything more, you realize, would betray enthusiasm: etymologically, the possession by a god or spirit & therefore the ultimate heresy for those who believe in the vacuity of belief.
There are very few active verbs. “Anything named is to be tilted,” he intones. “Around each of these states is a periphery of mixed states without syntax.” (A periphery around? Isn’t that redundant?) “The way things work is not a projection of syntax.” You are reminded of the child’s fantasy of disappearing by eating his own body parts, one by one – a fantasy only made possible, of course, by the invention of the flush toilet.
The second reader is more interesting because her incomprehensibility is more genuine. She walks with the help of a cane & speaks in brief, clipped phrases painfully delivered: a stroke two & a half years ago, she explains, has led to “a problem with speech production.” Thus, she says, she virtually embodies what had been said earlier that day about the gap. You divine that she is not talking about the clothing store.
All of these poets are participants in a weekend-long conference at the adjacent university. None of them bother to introduce themselves, clearly assuming that everyone in the small audience is part of their circle. You sip a hot beverage along with the others. You find you are one of three people taking notes.
Each difficult phrase endures a difficult birth. “Small stars in the shape of proverbs,” she says. You rather like that. But was the lyricism intended, or merely the affect of a defective ear?
Her last poem is in memoriam Jacques Derrida. Ironic self-parody, or unselfconscious cliché? Son of man, you cannot tell. “It carries an epigram,” she announces, & reads the epigram, whose author you fail to note: “There is no wasteland.” Bull fucking shit, lady! you want to shout.
The poem in memory of Jacques Derrida features a one-line refrain: “I kid you not.” Audience members exchange knowing looks. “Apocalypse – or a part of the body?” wonders the “poet.” Her infirmity prevents her from making frequent quotes in the air with her fingers as the others do. Her rigidity lends her a certain iconic quality, like Rilke’s archaic torso of Apollo – a comparison to which, you suspect, she wouldn’t take a shine. That she can still smile, can still read, seems frankly heroic.
And her speech impediment actually enhances her delivery, like George Burns with his frequent pauses to puff on a cigar. “The clock chimes midnight: bong, bong, bong, et cetera.” At this, the audience cracks up.
She, too, adheres strictly to her ten-minute time limit. At least these people are brief, you think, remembering open-mike readings where embarrassingly bad poets chortled their way through half their life’s work.
The third reader is actually understandable. You almost weep with gratitude. She reads selections from a lengthy midrash – as she calls it – on Adorno’s famous line, “After Auschwitz it is barbaric to write poetry.” Why was poetry singled out from among all the other arts, she wonders? It smacks of the way the Nazis singled out Jews, Gypsies, intellectuals, homosexuals – she runs down the list.
Her conclusion seems on-target, if somewhat obvious: for Adorno, a literary critic, “It is an act of mourning for him to cut off what was important to him,” like Abraham binding his beloved Isaac for the sacrifice. But in her lengthy questioning of Adorno’s motives, has she not placed herself in the position of an avatar of transcendent meaning, like the angel who carried God’s commands to Abraham? “Have I been taken in the role of angel? I should not write poetry,” her poem bravely concludes.
You like this reader. Not only does she read with expression, her patter between poems is funny: “The devil sold me his soul,” she says. You chuckle along with the others. “At the crossroads?” someone shouts.
“I am a phantom, sacred and secular, beginning not to disbelieve in ghosts,” she concludes one poem. “Beginning not to disbelieve”: does that make her the reactionary of the group? Another poem ends with the line, “Therefore it is scrupulous even to listen to shadows.” But you wonder: After Paul Celan, isn’t it a little barbaric to keep playing around with fractured syntax, as if your life, too, depended on it?
The last two readers of the evening also seem likeable, though once again you are reminded of the lines from that angry outsider poem by Antonio Machado: …Pedatones al paño / que miran, callan y piensan / que saben, porque no beben / el vino de las tabernas. “Academics in offstage clothes, who watch, say nothing, and think they know, because they don’t drink wine in the ordinary bars,” in Robert Bly’s translation. They are like dogs, you think, publicly licking their own genitals without shame.
You find yourself paying close attention to the noises from the front of the store. Every time the cash register dings, it sounds like an arch commentary on the reading. But a lengthy gargle from the espresso machine makes you think that maybe they’re all in on the joke. This is not, after all, one of the ordinary bars.
But perhaps you are the one who should be ashamed. “Juxtaposition is a kind of melodrama,” says the last reader. He repeats this phrase, or variations thereof, often enough to let you know that he’s almost serious. In place of a left hand he wears a pirate’s metal hook – or rather, a pair of pinchers – & you have a hard time taking your eyes off it. When he uses it to signal quotation marks, you think: it’s perfect.
“Juxtaposition is a kind of melodrama.” Juxtaposition is almost the whole of my art as a writer, you mutter to yourself.
Afterwards, sitting at the bar in the local brewery, your desire for a pint of porter is entirely sincere – or should we say post-ironic? Here’s where spending the last hour and fifteen minutes listening to “poetry” pays off. Beer & French fries have never tasted better than they do at this moment.