Titus and Lucius

If you’ve watched Rome, then this will make sense to you, and if you haven’t, you should probably at least consider watching the first season. It’s decent television. Don’t get your hopes up too high though: the idiots axed it at the end of Season 2, which had some unfortunate consequences for the storyline in that last season.

The two main protagonists are Roman centurions in service to Julius Caesar during the tumultuous time of his rise and fall. Titus Pullo is a Caesar loyalist, but his loyalty is fairly unsophisticated. He represents to some extent the mob that we might know best from Shakespeare’s play, that finds Caesar to embody a set of Roman ideals they find admirable. Lucius Vorenus, on the other hand, is old school. More levelheaded that Titus, also more of a traditionalist, he comes to understand how the part he plays in Caesar’s army contributes to the unraveling of the old Republican order, the idea of which his is substantially invested in.

I’ve come to think of Titus and Lucius as representing two different political strategies whose relative merits wax and wane against each other depending on where one finds oneself along the arc of history. It’s very easy to be critical of Titus for most of the series. He is a jackass, focused on booze and sex, and gets himself into all sorts of high stakes mischief that he isn’t really qualified to deal with. He doesn’t really know what’s going on, he’s just trying to keep his shit together long enough for another game of dice.

Especially in the beginning of the series, it’s easy to think that Lucius is the one who has the best handle on the world he’s in. But as the story progresses, in this particular instance, one starts to see how Titus, though a bit of a chump, is in possession of a chump kind of wisdom, refusing to stake a claim to political realities he has no control over, and it is Lucius, the one who has committed himself to a set of ideals about the state that have simply become untenable as the world has changed beneath his feet, that starts to seem like the fool.

This might lead one to ask the question, “When is it better to be Titus, and when is it better to be Lucius?” Obviously that’s kind of a BS question. What differentiates the two are characteristics of the personality that are probably fixed for most people. So if you’re Lucius (I’m a Lucius, obviously. Wouldn’t be writing this if I were a Titus), you’re not going to be able to just turn it off because someone convinces you that now is a shitty time for that sort of thing. Nevertheless, the question is not without its sense.

We can imagine, for instance, a version of this couple, only set back further in Roman history, to some point in time during its development into the old representative aristocracy that is eventually supplanted by Augustus. Lucius would be able to subscribe to his set of ideas about Roman virtue in a political background where they appear to be truly functional. In that context, Lucius’ virtue looks a lot like actual virtue, within the context of the local political relations. Titus Pullo then becomes entirely a figure of foolishness, someone who might have benefited from listening more carefully to his elders.

I assume without doing any actual math that, statistically, Lucius has the upperhand most of the time. Societies tend to be stable over fairly long periods, so the ideological buy in he represents is a good bet for most people most of the time. It’s only when instability arises, which is fairly uncommon (although of course, it does happen) that produces challenges of various kinds to the preexisting moral order of a society, that Titus’s lack of investment seems like a good deal.

With that said, the more immediate question, “How do you know what time it is right now?” may not be as easy to answer as all that. My suspicion is that we may be approaching Titus hour. That is not a prognostication of doom, per se, or even massive material instability, merely a prediction about the increasing irrelevance of our society’s moral and political claims as the world that founded them continues to recede from sight in the rear view mirror. The Constitution, for instance, seems increasingly fragile these days, and the robed guardians who stand in its defense seem awfully strained in their efforts to make sense of its function as the nation gets older.

Towards a Repudiation of Ezra Pound

I’ve been in this kind of jujitsu match with Ezra Pound’s ghost for a little while now, and I’m reasonably sure the only reason I’m doing so well is because, while specters are awfully slippery, they also have no leverage. But I thought I’d let this fight spill out of the haunted saloon into the ghost town streets for the two or three passersby who might find such antics amusing to witness.

I used to think my gripes with Pound were minimal, but the more I tried to come to terms with them and him, the more objectionable I found practically everything associated with his aesthetic program. The only thing that I agree with him about is that sound is important, or at least the idea of sound (a terrifying distinction when properly understood), and he may have been onto something trying to wed prosody and musicality, even if the fruits of those labors did not generate much in the way of the generally recognized theoretical success I assume they were intended to produce.

I could see how this disagreement would probably not move a bystander to tears. “I have not seen photos of you in a tastefully appointed home, wearing the fine garb associated with the cultural authorities of my people. Why should I care what you think about Ezra Pound?” I don’t have a very good answer for you. There is something to be said about making sure someone has an expensive couch before bothering to listen to their argument about some high lit subject. I could say something like, “This is, like, my *blog* man, it doesn’t care what you do or don’t assent to,” but that would be pretty fucking disingenuous. For good or ill, this post is an act of persuasion. But I don’t have any good first principle justification for why you should submit yourself to it in the first place.

How did you get here, anyway? You could be watching, like, really adorable cat videos right now. I mean that very sincerely. Cat videos are great. An essay about a dead poet probably can’t beat a cat video:

Fucking classic.

Are you still here? Poor bastard.

Alright, anyway, yadda yadda, the usual caveatifications. Ezra Pound is a great poet. There are even parts of the Cantos that are really good, in my estimation, although not enough of them to justify the nightmarish scale of that work. He satisfies the only test any poet is required to satisfy to justify one’s legacy in the annals of poetry, and that is the authorship of some good poems. And we can easily understand why so many people were seduced by his efforts to drag 20th century poesy out of the muck of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Before Pound, poets were stuffed shirts having deep thoughts to the sound of a metronome. Afterwards they were craftsman pushing against the limits of form to create ever more gnostic literary figures. This has been good for poetry, there is no doubt about it. But not everything that’s good in moderation is good in excess, and there have been, dare I say, excesses. Perhaps with nearly a century of perspective behind us, we are in good stead to identify them.

So we’re going to start with Imagism, or the Friends episode entitled “The One Where the Poets Get Really Jealous of Picasso.” And I’m not going to bone you up on it. If the cat video didn’t suck you away into a youtube k-hole then the odds of you somehow not having the gist about Imagism already is pretty small. It’s not too deep a subject for a nice google search if you don’t know what it is. Instead, let’s talk about what Imagism was trying to correct. For that we have to dig out some Wordsworth:

UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun, above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless–
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

So “The Tables Turned.” For a more thorough example of what I’m going to talk about you might try Swinburne:


But this little guy will do for our purposes. So what the fuck is going on here? Wordsworth is making an argument that’s kind of, not sure what the right word is. Antipedagogical, maybe? There’s the usual nature fetishism we get all over the realm of poesy before the blessedly widespread adoption of the parking lot. Whitman is no stranger to this kind of thing. “Fuck all this, let’s go stare at some trees!” This still makes sense to some people, by the way. Mary Oliver is one of the most widely read living poets, and her schtick is mainly about how cool it is to think about grass. I don’t understand it myself, but far be it from me to stand in the way of the understated grandeur of botanical mysticism if that’s what other people are into.

Not enough robots for me though, so I’m inclined to offer the Romantics an apology instead. We are talking about people who lived during a time when watching baseball for recreational purposes made a lot of sense. In such a time, we might imagine that a reader would have more patience, not just with the ubiquitous greenery in poetry, but with the build up to a kind of rhetorical denouement which entails a certain amount of front-loaded fluff.

If you look at the poem, you’ll see that Wordsworth spends 5 stanzas-over half of the poem-engaged in just this kind of build up. But the real fireworks-what makes this poem good, doesn’t happen until the sixth stanza, when we finally get our thesis, and even then it’s the text of the seventh that this whole poem is about. And that text is very gnomic-I’m sure there are quite of a few sig blocks that have that quote about murdering to dissect in them. It’s the memorable part of the poem that sticks with a reader after all the miscellaneous warbling about meadows and thrushes has been forcibly ejected from the brain.

Now I think these things go together. This poem is famous for a reason, and not just because it trolls bookworms. A poem is, importantly, a sequence of words. It’s temporal, and we can sort of imagine this poem doing what say, a locker room speech might do to bling out its persuasive designs, or even what a song might do when it starts out with some gentle humming for a while before the trumpets start to blare. Against some forgettable non-descriptions about nature shit, the transition into a strident generalization acquires the force of a heroic shout. Understood this way, it’s also practically a contradiction of the poem’s premise in the first place, but there’s never been any danger of getting Wordsworth and W.V.O. Quine mixed up.

Anyway, you got a poem with 8 stanzas. Maybe two of them have some real punch. And regardless of whether everything in “The Tables Turned” is necessary to achieve the poem’s intended function, if you’re a poet, looking for ways to make poetry better, it stands to reason that one way you might try to improve poems like this is to try to shrink out the fluff. And this intuition which has a label (compression) in poetry dominates the way contemporary poems are judged by the people with the sad job of trying to figure out what to commit to print and what to consign to artistic ignominy. And I will say here without too substantial an argument (i.e. feel free to just dismiss it) that the success of Pound in getting successive generations of poets to buy into this idea about how they should write poetry has contributed to the widespread collapse of popular interest in the art.

If you think of a poet as an artist in the manner of, say, Van Gogh, then this may not seem like such a big deal. Popular shit sucks. That Thomas Kinkade and his fucking eerily lit cottage paintings. “Damn Maya Angelou,” says some overeducated academic who has spent the last ten years of his adjunct career trying to get students in his Introduction To Creative Writing class to become acolytes of his obscure language cult. You can see him grind his teeth as he notices a book of poems written by Jewel sucking up space in the tiny, tiny poetry section in the big box bookstore. Not a single fucking book by Ashbery, he mutters. I bet Jewel doesn’t even know who John Ashbery is.

I bet she doesn’t either!

Nevertheless, the existence of Thomas Kinkade should probably be kind of unsettling to poets. Because it’s not like there isn’t a flourishing high art scene that turns its nose up at practically the whole idea of landscape paintings. And yet people still buy landscape paintings. And, oh yeah, people still read shit, and we know that because didn’t they just turn a book that started out as Twilight fan fic, perhaps the lowest, most debased form of literature there is, into a blockbuster smash hit? And somehow everyone knows who the fuck Robert Frost was. So how is it that we live in a world where Dan Brown is a millionaire, but only three people have figured out how to even make a living writing poetry? It can’t possibly be the case that there aren’t enough suckers with a disposable income out there. People will pay five dollars for a cup of coffee.

This isn’t all Ezra Pound’s fault, by the way. A substantial amount of blame can be heaped upon the New Critics who invented the idea of the close reading. And we can’t get too mad at them, either, because it isn’t like it was a bad idea. In a classroom, the close reading approach to poetry makes sense. In a literary world with the likes of The Wasteland in it, it may even be a practical necessity just to give readers a sense of their own literary competence in the face of almost unreadable literary esoterica. But most people are not close readers, and building an entire literary tradition atop of the idea that readers can be expected to stare at the same sentence for a minute if they have to is grotesque. People have things to do, man.

One of the advantages of old school form, like the kind Wordsworth uses, is that it permitted a poet to write lines that weren’t grand slams and move on. If it rhymes and rhythms right, it satisfies a kind of structural minimum standard, and a poet could move on without wondering whether the commas are doing any work or not. And a reader, knowing that most of the time his eyes will be spent reading exactly such lines, doesn’t have to take a deep breath before plunging into every new poem, wondering whether he’s boned up enough on French symbolism to even figure out what the hell is going on.

And obviously, there’s plenty of contemporary poetry that is accessible. But there’s an inevitable heuristic that people will develop based on the general composition of the available instances of an artform. If you have to dig through ten poems in a lit mag to find one that isn’t making you feel bad for not taking enough literature courses in college, at a certain point, you’re going to stop looking. And the dominant ways that contemporary poets who have moved away from traditional form go about signaling to the world they are writing poems is precisely by engaging in techniques like estrangement and various weird couplet forms, or just spattering words on a page as non linearly as the word processor will allow. If the way you prove what you wrote is a real poem is by making it as hard as possible to understand, it’s going to discourage some readers.

Now, I don’t think we should go back to heroic couplets. The state of form has advanced quite a bit since Wordsworth. But, I know this might sound a little crazy, artist, but maybe it’s okay if a poem contains a few aesthetic defects. One might even deliberately put some lines in that aren’t designed to swoon a reader. There’s certainly precedent for this kind of thing in American poetry that goes all the way back to Emerson. It could be justified, is all I’m saying.

One of the important differences between poetry and visual art is that you can just look at a painting and fucking pretend to have all kinds of emotions on the basis of the colors or how the little blue tricycle makes you feel. But you actually have to engage in some form of interpretation in order to unlock a poem. Because otherwise it’s just a mass of black squiggles on a white background, and all these squiggles look the fucking same. Poets who are cavalier about this effort aren’t just being assholes-they are abrogating their responsibilities as vanguards of the public coin of speech. You owe it to your profession and to society to get off your fucking high horse every now and then and do some pro bono work for the hoi polloi. Then go back to your favorite display at the New York Museum of Modern Art and recommence your avant garde circle jerk if you like.

Shades of Sheogorath

For Michael Kirkbride

How many dead heroes add up to one almighty Talos?
All of them, of course. But that was an easy one.
He’s no St. Jiub, Talos. Also not sure how to feel
About those Nord overtones, honestly.
Dare I say old Campbell went a little overboard
In his quest to unify all the narratives?
A hero is really just someone with a problem
And time on their hands.
But the time on our hands is the whole problem.

Contamination of dream by reality has been a wrinkle
Since the followers of Francis Bacon
Started cutting up dogs just to see what was really inside them.
None of the predecessors
of the Darwinian materialist consensus
Ever bothered to ask
What kind of world you get if you have to constantly check
To see what kind of world it is.
Well, look around: pretty fucking lumpy.
Lumps all the way down-even gravity,
And if ever there were a phenomenon
Crying out to be made smooth
It’s Newton’s great generalization,
But if you check the chart, the theorists
Have a special lump for it too
Although blessedly no one has seen that one yet.
Subatomic play-along is the name of the game
But the clue to this whole drama is that the universe
Doesn’t bippity bop it’s boo until it has too.
You gotta love you some o’ dat old time metaphysical reluctance.

Nevertheless, we should probably thank the fact checkers.
Without a new pair of ombudsman eyes being born every minute
All the grandmas would have spit-roasted the world
Just so they could see Jesus striding across the new Miltonic hellscape
Where once there sat a perfectly serviceable shopping mall
In the last seconds before Old Yahweh whisked their souls away
To be with that self-same Jesus.
Not enough to die into your due reward, it’s all about the timing-
Mutual ontological orgasm
Entails simultaneous organism/world death.
If it were all just a game of competing wills to power
The olds would have found a way to pull the ladder
And the world it was standing on
All the way up with them, selfish bastards,
And the children always such a small price to pay
For one final Apocalyptic thrill-ride.

Anyway, chunky vanilla-flavored has its virtues is all I’m saying.
Sure, this where-when is especially boring,
And all the where-whens in the near future
Dare to eclipse our now with even greater vistas of banality,
But it’s easy enough to abandon these strict confines,
Slip sideways into engineered pocket dimensions.
Mythopoesis is mainly about dodging the bullet trains
Raining on the Spanish plains,
And if you’re going to do the dance it helps
to know the difference between turning and strafing.

The Love Button

For Nini Berndt

There’s some regional price variation:
Cheaper in the South, or so I’m told,
‘Round here the Love Button costs three quarters,
And it won’t take nickels for some reason.
Anyway, it looks like an ordinary vending machine,
Usual stock. You can just buy Zingers if you want,
But of course, a little comfort food with your lovin’
Is an old and venerable tradition.
Set you back two and half bucks altogether though.
Inflation’s a bitch. Anyway, the way it works
Is that you put your shiny coins into the slot
And then you hit the big red button with the word LOVE
Stamped on it
And these skinny robot arms dangling at the sides
Come up and around in perfect arcs,
But slow, stopping at the barest contact
With a gentle clanking sound on account of all the springs.
You can step back if the idea of a vending machine hug
Frightens you. There’s no sensor, those arms don’t know
If they’re touching anything, but if you’re willing to play along
They’ll find you well enough and no harm done.
The “hands” on the arms are clearly cast off of some mannequin,
Worn down and dirty from repeated use,
Lifeless, cold, and dull. The mechanical patting
Requires a little cooperation on your part
To repeatedly meet the soft target of your back,
Otherwise the machine looks like it’s doing the Macarena
Or engaging in some incomplete gestural obscenity.
As the patting occurs the vending machine whispers
In a voice of gears ground down over the years
Affirmations. “You are an important member of the community,”
It cycles through the same phrases each time,
“You are well loved. You deserve this hug.” And so on.
The vending machine never says it loves you,
Always speaks on behalf of some hypothetical society
A member of which you are assured to be in good stead.

It’s a joke of course. Party-favor style gag.
“Go buy yourself a hug” people say in these parts,
Holding out three pretend quarters.
No one ever sees anyone use the Love Button,
And you’d think it’d be a waste of good laundry money,
But I talked to the vending machine guy the other day
And he said he’s had to replace the arms on this machine
Three times in the last five years,
And the voicebox is due for an upgrade.

For Georgie Boy

So the Jerk Store called. They said they were running out of you. Yeah, you heard right-you’re a popular model, I guess. The Jerk Store called and said they couldn’t keep the shelves stocked, you were just flying off them. The guy at the Jerk Store confided in me that it was not how the executives had envisioned things working. You were the discount model: you know, after they put you together, they even did all that stuff to your face to make you less appealing. Even priced you at a loss hoping the old bait and switch would click. They thought people would take one look at you, and decide to invest in at least the midline model, if not a top shelf jerk with all the bells and whistles. I’m not sure why they thought putting bells and whistles on that model would make it more appealing, but the tastes of the wealthy have always baffled me. Anyhow, it turns out, you hit the right price point for a lot of people-I guess they weren’t looking to pay extra for handsomer, more melodious jerks this year. The recession gets around to everyone eventually. Also, the Jerk Store guy told me that the way they had you posed in the big ass package they set you in, with those scare quote hands and that sneer, he guesses people thought it was really quite campy. You’re, like, a fucking party favor. Getting passed around on Christmas like fruitcake. Some gamer told me the next big fighter game coming out is going to have a version of you as an easter egg. Your special moves are going to be some kind of sarcasm jujitsu involving a lot of excessive hand gestures and eye rolling. Anyway, I just thought you should know that the Jerk Store called and said they’re running out of you.

A Millennial Responds to Simon Doonan

As soon as his mouth opens I know I’m in for a slog

The lips pulling slowly back to form that I

As if his cheeks were reining in a cantankerous horse

The exhalation of breath, I can almost see the dunes it shifts

Across the hellish sands of Old Man time

The wiry hairs sticking out of his scalp forming

Their own minute synchronized dance routines

The lips closing down now to form the MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM

The sound of all the machines under Lud churning for a thousand years

That curl on the left side of his mouth forms

The canyon that signals to anyone who cares to notice

That this person has enjoyed a few orgasms

The A those reins again

I start counting femtoseconds one at a time

I try to remember how I got to this cocktail party

Why did Adam invite me here

About halfway to a quadrillion

The Goo forms

Imaginary Old Man sand blasting

Like bugs out of a mummy’s mouth

Brace shoulders for sound I know is coming

Like all the library books taken and dropped at once upon

The hard wooden floors of all the gymnasiums in the world

But can feel my neck tire before that D

Finally slams. I struggle to hide the shock

Blinking in horror at the prospect of the next word

The whirling galaxies where did I put my car keys

Hand searching pocket for something to hold

As the CON breaks across the deep cold spaces

The world too small for this word

VER The sound of civilizations boiling across deserts

SAY A frozen cosmic astral choir shrieking forever

SHUN In an alien tongue designed to make the sound be the meaning

ULL As all the matter in the universe departs from itself into the waiting arms

IST Of the last bastions of the vasty vastness

Too exhausted anymore to entertain the guise of form.

Whitman Versus the Astronomer

Just for shits and grins you ought to listen to the coma patient they employed to recite the poem that you should probably already know is the subject of this article:


I’m not going to get too deep in the weeds about poetic recitation, but seriously, who wants to go to a performance where the main speaker is deliberately trying to purge all emotional expression from their voice? Oh, and then listen to them for sixty minutes doing that kind of shit? At least the slam poets are allowed to have feelings on stage.

So, here’s my version. I should say it’s not that great:

It’s not a super dramatic poem, and I’m not trying to ape the Ancient Mariner here. But a little something something is called for. Especially with Whitman, who came online well before the firmware update turned all the spoken verse from flesh into wood.

I could see how a person might say that they don’t really want to hear the ways I’m deviating from some hypothetical, pure textual offering. And fine. If you think the verbal expression of poems is best served by engaging in a simulated lobotomy of human speech, then you’ll love modern academic poetry readings.

You might instead say, “dwietzsche, I just don’t like the way you do it.” Very good. I invite you to do better! If you’ve got a webcam and an internet connection you can go to Soundcloud or wherever you like and crank out your own version. No one owns Whitman, and what better tribute to him than a thousand different readings of the same poem? Especially by anyone with vocal talent, which is a real thing that really exists and that real poets should really care about.  You might want to pick something a little punchier than old man Learn’d though. If you’ve got the stamina, how about Crossing Brooklyn Ferry?

Anyway, on to the actual looking at the poem part:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I don’t know how frequently we see this idea in poetry, but it’s probably not too rare. Wordsworth has a version of this poem, more arboreal than celestial, but trucks in this same kind of sentiment, resisting bookish, academic involvement in the world, in favor of just gawking at it. And the gawking of course is not some plain ordinary eye-pointing. We’re supposed to buy the idea that the poet is engaged in a form of communion with trees or stars or what have you and invited to accept the opposition that is supposed between the abstractions of the intellect and lived experience.

XKCD has a perfectly serviceable reply to this anti-intellectual line of attack:

My initial dissatisfaction with the tendency of poets to engage in this sort of thing is rooted in large part by my dissatisfaction with the idea that poets have a different relationship with knowledge or experience generally from scientists or professors or whatever. “Let’s go look at some trees” is just a weak sauce position to take, especially if the opposite of this position is the one that gets you things like microwave ovens and hovercrafts and shit like that. It’s not like scientists can’t also go look at fucking trees whenever they feel like it too. No one’s got a monopoly on mysticism.

It’s taken quite a bit of fiddling to come around to this poem. To explain it, I have to begin at the end of the world:


You don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. Long story short, human cyborg Stephen Hawking and a bunch of other science types are afraid of Skynet, or some version of Skynet, the nature of which we have not been apprised, but which may or may not involve a race of computational superbeings who decide to reward their creators for bringing them into existence with some combination of slavery/extinction/batteryification.

Dwietzsche doesn’t think you should worry about the coming AI apocalypse. But I can see you saying, “why should I listen to you when there’s a perfectly serviceable Stephen Hawking who is, after all, a really smart guy?” And it’s precisely this question that has made me reconsider my objections to this poem.

You should listen to me, and not Stephen Hawking, because Stephen Hawking doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. You know who *might* know what the hell is going on in a world where nerds cower at the idea of their imaginary synthetic intellectual superiors? A whip smart motherfucking poet might know something about that kind of shit. Telling bullshit stories about how the world is going to end is our job. Which is why we would know the difference between a plausible existential threat to the human race and a made up bullshit one in the first place. This one is clearly bullshit.

I can’t rule out that one about global warming, unfortunately. Learn to swim and all that. But this thing with AI isn’t just about being in a position to call a spade a spade. It’s about how the quantifiers have usurped the mythopoetic from the versifiers in some demonic long game started by the Pythagoreans three millennia ago.

There are good, if somewhat sublimated, reasons why Wordsworth tells us to actually shut our books in “The Tables Turned,” and Whitman, who was by all accounts an astronomy buff who was totally into the new science, depicts himself walking away from the spreadsheet approach to cosmology in favor of… some other undocumentable kind of thing. And the reason is that it is the coming of the book itself that presages the end of poesy as an authoritative discipline in the first place.

That’s a tangent that could go on forever, but there are books that already exist you can read. Try some Ong if you haven’t visited these waters:


For my purposes, it is enough here to simply note that poets used to own the joint. Homer was the overstuffed pinata of Ancient Greek lore, and his stories did a lot of work-historical, political, geographical, metaphysical. The Greek collective consciousness was held together explicitly in the telling of a set of tales that could be accumulated inside a single head. Not a great system, but it had its advantages.

And then writing happened, and that was the beginning of a vast reordering of the way we do the kind of business Homer was up to. New disciplines branched up and out of older traditions. Philosophy and poetry separated, and then philosophy broke off into theology and natural philosophy, and then the Enlightenment happened and natural philosophy exploded into a thousand different pieces.

That poetry could credibly have been understood to be the ur discipline has been forgotten, most importantly by the poets, who mainly have cooperated with the systematic dismantling of their formal cultural authority and have gone so far as to conveniently shelve themselves alongside the painters, the most feckless and insignificant of all the artisans. While libraries have grown, the amount of shelf space devoted to the poets has not. And a part of the reason for that is because poets aren’t doing their fucking jobs anymore.

This criticism cannot fairly be applied to Whitman, who recognized his responsibilities as the American Homer. And if I were to pull something I thought was admirable out of Whitman that I don’t think anyone has the balls to do anymore, it was his efforts to create, through poetry, an architectonic image that unites the celestial and the mundane. And his engagement with the metaphysical was an outgrowth of his own participation in the science of his day. He was not just vomiting out some neoclassical bullshit to give aristocrats warm fuzzies about themselves.

If you were to look for any kind of examples of this in the modern day, what you get is Neil DeGrasse Tyson/Joni Mitchell talking about how we’re made of starshit, and that’s about as good as it gets. We can’t blame Neil for taking some off the shelf mysticism, since he’s not a poet, he’s an astrophysicist. The epistemological commitments of scientists are in direct opposition to the mythopoetic. But seriously, there should be more stuff available to him in stock than a line ripped from “Woodstock.”

In the absence of a credible effort to do this work, we’re stuck with an eruption of metaphysical wankery straight out of the heads of theoretical physicists, who are no mean bullshitters within the limits of their own slender intellectual tranche. I would even go so far as to induct the kind of people who worry about multiverse theory into the Order of Poesy, if it were in my authority to do so. But the popularization of their ideas, where we get, for instance, the “God Particle,” or the elevation to oracle status of a guy soldered into a wheelchair whose main scientific accomplishments, though impressive, are also completely unsubstantiable mathematical treatments of nearly unobservable objects, and of  course the aforementioned trembling at the prospect our mechanized Brainiac overlords, are just hokum that serves them and their idealized versions of themselves. The rest of us are invited to elevate a tiny, almost scientifically irrelevant subset of elite physicists to the status of deityhood. I think we should refuse their invitation.

And this is where my sympathy for Whitman comes in. There’s a lot that’s not stated in this poem. We don’t see Whitman simply refusing to accept that authority of the astronomer on the question of how far away the stars are. And poets, of course, should accept science within the scheme of justification that science is offered. But to the extent that the astronomer is engaged in a kind of middle man deal-the greasy haired salesman offering to be an emissary to the stars which anyone can just go out and see themselves, we should turn his offer down.

No one owns the stars, either.