by Jack Anders
One of my favorite weird poets is Georg Trakl. Once you hear the story of his life you will never feel self-pity again, for he had a truly hard, harsh life. Trakl was born in 1887 in Austria. As he grew up he was not very close to his parents and became abnormally close to his sister, Grete. As is often the case with poets, he was a bad student in high school and had to repeat a grade. He began reading other weird writers including Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Verlaine and Baudelaire. He let his hair grow long and started to write poems which at first were awful. He remained emotionally very close to his sister Grete and may or may not had incestuous thoughts or even encounters with her. He had many bad habits. He liked to go to whorehouses and give speeches to an old hooker. By his late teenage years he was ingesting alcohol, opium, and chloroform (not necessarily in that order) and then dropped out of school. He could not help getting into trouble, so he got a job with a pharmacist, and freely helped himself to some of the more psychoactive medications. Speaking seriously, one may view this part of his history as a primitive effort at self-medication for a full-blown classic case of poet’s bipolar in the days before there was Prozac.
He wrote a couple plays that were very bad. The derision of critics hurt him and so he took more drugs. Amazingly he got accepted to a university in Vienna to study pharmacology, but mainly spent his time there writing pretty bad poems. Then around 1910 when things were looking very bleak and his dad died and his family ran out of money, he started writing good (though very weird) poems. He got a job in the medical corps of the Austro-Hungarian army. This was like a honeymoon period for him because he was not asked to do much. Then once the army stint ended, he got a job in 1911 at the White Angel pharmacy (what a name! one can visualize a strung-out Marlene Dietrich wandering in to refill her laudanum). The job stressed and pained him so much that he was said to have sweated through several shirts a day. So he went back to the army. At this point, the editor of a little magazine, Ludwig von Ficker, took a liking to his poems and published them. Ficker even gave him a place to stay for a while. Meanwhile he was struggling the whole time with what seems to have been a really bad case of hardcore bipolar depression.
In July 1914 he received a large grant of money from, of all people, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. At the time, Wittgenstein was giving away all his money because in his own purity he did not wish to be selfish with it. Wittgenstein gave him the money having never even met him. In such weird ways the turnings and twisting of fate become what poets are. However before Trakl could use the money World War I started. The war experience pushed him into breakdowns and he was hospitalized more than once for depression and suicide attempts. Finally Trakl found himself in a barn outside a town called Grodek, with the duty of providing medical care to almost 100 badly wounded soldiers. He saw horrible things like the brains of a soldier who shot himself. He had another breakdown and was hospitalized. Trakl injected himself with an overdose of cocaine and died on November 3, 1914. Three days later Wittgenstein showed up to try to help him but it was too late, he was dead. His sister Grete shot herself three years later. May their spirits rest in peace. When asked what he thought of Trakl’s poems, Wittgenstein said “I do not understand them; but their tone pleases me. It is the tone of true genius.”
The strange intersection and synchronicity between Trakl’s fate-path and Wittgenstein’s fate-path to me is amazing. It is quite touching to reflect on the young philosopher’s random act of impractical kindness toward a strange drug-addicted bipolar poet he had not even met; how the madness of World War I prevented this generosity from really helping Trakl’s life; how Wittgenstein then arrives just a few days too late to rescue the poet from suicide. Ultimately, to me, there is a sense of awe, and even hopefulness, in this anecdote, despite its obvious tragedy.
Trakl’s poems have been a major influence on American poets including James Wright and Robert Bly. They do not always translate well, but through the cumbersomeness of the English translations you can get glimpses of a dusky mood that is utterly mysterious and entrancing:
It is a stubble field, where a black rain is falling.
It is a brown tree, that stands alone.
It is a hissing wind, that encircles empty houses.
How melancholy the evening is.
A while later,
The soft orphan garners the sparse ears of corn.
Her eyes gaze, round and golden, in the twilight
And her womb awaits the heavenly bridegroom.
On the way home
The shepherd found the sweet body
Decayed in a bush of thorns.
I am a shadow far from darkening villages.
I drank the silence of God
Out of the stream in the trees.
Cold metal walks on my forehead.
Spiders search for my heart.
It is a light that goes out in my mouth.
At night, I found myself on a pasture,
Covered with rubbish and the dust of stars.
In a hazel thicket
Angels of crystal rang out once more.
(Trakle, “De Profundis,” trans. James Wright & Robert Bly).
I once came upon a letter that Trakl wrote that was quoted in a book in a library in Winston-Salem. In it, Trakl talks about how he has been trying in his poems to simply state a series of images, without subjective comment. Notice how the first three lines of the poem quoted above do just that. Trakl seeks to state clear images which imply emotional meanings, without the poet explicitly stating those meanings. From the images in the poem above, we are left with the sense of autumnal melancholy, the dying fall of dusk, the bittersweet sadness of nostalgia and recollection, the heartbreaking yet soft realization that all is emptiness. Beyond that, we cannot help but be struck by some of the very strange things going on in the poem. What are we to make of the apparent rape/murder scene in the middle? What in the world does “cold metal walks on my forehead” mean? How did he come up with the surrealist brilliance of figures such as “a light that goes out in my mouth”? Reading the poem, we can understand the gist of Wittgenstein’s comment. We do not wholly understand what the poem means, but the tone is very well felt, and seeps with genius, weird singularity.
Here is one more Trakl poem translated by Wright and Bly. This poem is a good deal more controlled and restrained than the first one I quoted. The two poems however share that unmistakable dusky mood we associate with Trakl, as well as his penchant for clear mysterious imagery and a refusal to use metaphor:
At evening the complaint of the cuckoo
Grows still in the wood.
The grain bends its head deeper,
The red poppy.
Darkening thunder drives
Over the hill.
The old song of the cricket
Dies in the field.
The leaves of the chestnut tree
Stir no more.
Your clothes rustle
On the winding stair.
The candle gleams silently
In the dark room;
A silver hand
Puts the light out;
Windless, starless night.
In this poem, we have a series of images which are gestures which are each fadings to terminus. Each image is a whispy fading-away. The cuckoo’s song grows still; the stalks of grain bend deeper; the thunder darkens; the cricket’s song dies; the tree leaves cease to stir; etc. Every single image in the poem follows this same arc. The images are like a series of miniature sunsets, fading dusks. Each image is captured on its way into nothingness, darkness, sleep. And that is precisely where we are left in the poem: in windless, starless night. The poem is a tour de force of strangeness and purity. It is objective in terms of its clarity of imagery, without rhetoric or comment. And yet, the tone of the poem is of an overwhelming subjective twilight intensity and weird melancholy and beauty. His images are like notes of music glimpsed as they go into silence.
Both Robert Bly and James Wright noted the strange presence and use of silence in Trakl’s poems, in their introductory notes to their translations of his poems. In his introductory note, Robert Bly among other things offers the following reflections:
The poems of Georg Trakl have a magnificent silence in them. It is very rare that he himself talks–for the most part he allows the images to speak for him. Most of the images, anyway, are images of silent things. In a good poem made by Trakl images follow one another in a way that is somehow stately.
The images have a mysterious connection with each other. The rhythm is slow and heavy, like the mood of someone in a dream. Wings of dragonflies, toads, the gravestones of cemeteries, leaves, and war helmets give off strange colors, brilliant and sombre colors–they live in too deep a joy to be gay. At the same time they live surrounded by a darkness without roads.
You can see how in this prose passage, the poet Bly is attempting to capture into his own poetic words the unique strange tone we find in Trakl’s poems. Likewise, this is what James Wright has to say about Trakl:
I believe that patience is the clue to the understanding of Trakl’s poems. One does not so much read them as explore them. They are not objects which he constructed, but quiet places at the edge of a dark forest where one has to sit still for a long time and listen very carefully. Then, after all one’s patience is exhausted, and it seems as though nothing inside the poem will ever make sense in the ways to which one has become accustomed by previous reading, all sorts of images and sounds come out of the trees, or the ponds, or the meadows, or the lonely roads— those places of awful stillness that seem at the center of nearly every poem Trakl ever wrote. In the poems which we have translated, there are frequent references to silence and speechlessness. But even where Trakl does not mention these conditions of the spirit by name, they exist as the very nourishment without which one cannot even enter his poems, much less understand them.
Notice how in this prose passage, Wright explores how in Trakl’s poems, silence is not simply removal or privation, but also functions as a “nourishment.” Wright and Bly both penetrate beyond the sad, melancholic and negative reverberations of Trakl’s work as they struggle to articulate the ineffable mood of his poems. When Wright speaks of the “awful” quality of the silence or stillness in Trakl’s poems, he is clearly using that word in the sense of awe and wonder, as opposed to the simply negative sense of the word. Indeed, in Wright’s own poetry, he consistently seeks to go beyond tragedy and horror into a poetic realm of awe and wonder.
The situation of poetry itself is very weird today. We live in the generation in which poetry is coming to terms with the internet. Poetic textuality is entering the internet. What the internet means is that more text, more writing, is simultaneously displayed and preserved than at any prior time in human history. There is more writing in existence, saved in the virtually limitless storage capacity of servers in cyberspace, than at any prior time. It is, in one sense, a richness, a plenitude. But there is a mysterious sense of ghostly loss that goes with it. For the presence of so much writing, so much sheer volume of poetry, out there in cyberspace, foregrounds the question for us, for you or me, the individual self, the individual reader: what is it for? How does one use it? What does it mean?
The internet as textual storage mechanism is like the infinite library imagined in the 20th century pre-internet by the writer Borges. Borges by trade was a librarian. He was aware of the strange emptiness of richness. By that I mean: the mere fact that a library or the internet may contain tens of thousands of valuable and meaningful texts does nothing for us. The fact that all the poems are there means nothing, unless we read them. Yet to try to read them immediately demonstrates to me or you the limited capacity of our human minds. We can only read one poem at a time. When we turn to read a new poem, the old poem vanishes from our foreground consciousness. We realize that the impression of richness of a library, or of the internet, is in fact illusory. Our foreground consciousness has such small storage capacity by comparison. We begin to have a sense of there being thousands of valuable texts, demanding to be read, deserving to be known, which we simply cannot fit into and hold within our consciousness. We realize how much of our mind is composed of silence.
Therefore an initiation into this new world of poetry as it is transferred onto and suspended within the internet is an initiation into the lessons of emptiness. Unless we make our peace with silence we cannot make our peace with the increasingly evident fact that, even if we furiously search out and read all the good poems in existence until the day that we die, there is no way we can know or save them all, inside our minds. We must understand the presence of silence. There is something extremely weird about this, and something mystical.
I have been studying poetry for about twenty years. And yet almost on a daily basis, I stumble upon new poets of whom I have never heard before, writing work which, as I read it, I recognize to be valuable and necessary to the spiritual integrity of my personal being. Until the last few months I had never heard of Jack Gilbert or read a book by Anna Swir. Now, both poets seem essential to me. This realization can only lead to the further realization that there are innumerable other poets and writers out there of whom I will never learn, never make the acquaintance, by the time I die. Those wonderful works only exist as silence, as the unknown. Therefore I must come to terms with silence and not-knowing.
This thought takes me to the weird poet Ryokan. Ryokan was a poor hermit. He lived as a Zen Buddhist monk in the Niigata area of Japan from the late 1700s through the early 1800s. He was remarkably childlike and plain in some of his perceptions. He really and truly had a natural connection with children. There are anecdotes about how Ryokan liked nothing better than to sit in the dirt down at the local village and play marbles with children all day long. Because of this connection to children and childhood, he was able to put across simple and pure perceptions in his poems that reflect the statement ascribed to Yeshua (Jesus) that to enter the kingdom of heaven one must become like a little child; or the statement ascribed to Heraclitus that time is a child playing dice by the side of the sea. Ryokan stumbled upon the insight of not-knowing. He had a Zen initiate’s comfort with the idea that he did not know, the idea that he was in silence. Only through comfort with not-knowing and silence can we possibly come to terms with the virtually infinite textual proliferation which is the internet. Accordingly consider the following weird insight-poem from our impoverished and strange Zen friend, Ryokan:
With no-mind, blossoms invite the butterfly;
With no-mind, the butterfly visits the blossoms.
When the flower blooms, the butterfly comes;
When the butterfly comes, the flower blooms.
I do not “know” others,
Others do not “know” me.
Not-knowing each other we naturally follow the Way.
To me this poem is useful in coming to terms with the lesson of the internet, which is that a virtual infinity of text is a virtual infinity of silence, and that the availability of so much stored-up, valuable knowledge is a reflection, finally, of all we do not know. In the above-quoted poem, the Japanese word we have translated into the English phrase, “no-mind,” is mushin. To me mushin means the mind that is so free that it is free of its own definition of itself and in fact cannot be defined by the word “mind” and in fact is also the otherness which opposes mind. By allowing ourselves a mystical perception, perhaps we can experience this situation as something other than pain. It can be very difficult for us in the West to experience a phrase like “no-mind” or a concept like “not-knowing” in a way which is not negative. After all, we are the society of the Logos, of the original, establishing Word and Presence. And yet the internet shows us how the more that the word is established, the more words that there are that we don’t know.
The internet constitutes a gigantic preservation of words, a huge, virtually limitless repository of texts. The more poems that are saved on the internet, the more we realize how few of those poems are saved in our own minds. Accordingly the problem of attachment foregrounds itself in the contemporary situation of poetry on the internet. Unless we somehow learn to let poetry go, we must suffer from the knowledge that we are unable to save it in ourselves.
Have you ever been leafing through poems and had the sense that in some weird way, it was as if all the poems ever written were written by one common consciousness? The proliferation of poems on the internet is related to an ongoing deconstruction of the concept of the individual separate self. In a sense, all poems are written by Anonymous: by what Greek poets called the Muse who spoke through them, what Czeslaw Milosz called the daemon who gave him the poems that he merely wrote, as if taking down dictation. Indeed, can we not agree that poetry comes from somewhere beyond the self? And that the joy of writing poems is the joy of becoming free from self? It might be a weird idea, but I do not believe that the writing of good poems affords fame to the individual writer, nor do I believe that cults of literary personality are necessary or healthy. I think that to the extent that a poem is good, it takes us beyond the individual separate self of the poet, beyond our own separate self, and out toward the verge of life and death, self and other, where we find ourselves in others and find others in ourselves. In this regard, D. T. Suzuki wrote of Ryokan that “when we know one Ryokan, we know hundreds of thousands of Ryokans in Japanese hearts.” In America, some of us might have the same feeling, for example, reading Whitman. His poems seem to take us into and out past ourselves, into the radiance of experience of which our sad mortal temporary solitary selves are no more than conduits. It is OK if we die since that which we are is really the light that shines through us. Yes, that is a weird idea.
In case anyone needs more persuasion that Ryokan was a weird guy, let me recite one biographical anecdote:
Ryokan loved to play hide-and-seek with the children. One day he ran to hide in the outhouse. The children knew where he was but decided to play a joke and run away without telling him. The next morning someone came into the outhouse and saw Ryokan crouching in the corner. “What are you doing here, Ryokan?” she said. “Shh, be quiet, please,” he whispered, “or else the children will find me.”
There are many other weird poets from the lore of Zen Buddhism. In Asian terminology these poets are affectionately known of as “eccentrics,” a word not used with the negative connotations which it might have in our society. Zen Buddhist perspectives accept and appreciate the mystery and awe of the eccentric and the weird. Other weird Asian poets include Han Shan, who lived in a cave on a hill called Cold Mountain and wrote his poems with charcoal on the cave walls. I have written about Han Shan elsewhere, so let me close this section of my essay by directing you to one more brief poem by Ryokan, said to have been written on his deathbed:
showing their backs
then their fronts
the autumn leaves scatter in the wind
3. Weird French Dudes: Artaud, Bataille, Lautreamont
Any survey of weird poems must include a mention of Antonin Artaud. I have spent a good deal of time so far emphasizing the positive and gentle connotations of weirdness, but with Artaud we enter different territory that is far more violent and icky, in that sense closer to our normal sense of the weird as being something scary and frightening. Artaud was a French movie actor, dramatist, poet, mystic and spiritual explorer of the early 20th century. He ended up confined to an asylum for what was diagnosed as schizophrenia. His mental illness was absolutely real and absolutely painful. He was devastated by his mental condition and was subjected to extreme treatments such as electroshock. His texts are often very violent and scatological, blasphemous and disturbingly incoherent, clear precursors to the negative theology of Bataille. A comparison of photographs of the young and the old Artaud is shocking. The young Artaud was a very beautiful young man who, in fact, landed starring roles as Marat in Abel Gance’s movie “Napoleon,“ among other films. The old Artaud is a toothless specter. In a 1924 letter to Jacques Rivière, editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française, Artaud provided the following description of his situation:
I suffer from a fearful mental disease. My thought abandons me at every stage. From the mere fact of thought itself to the external fact of its materialisation on words. Words, the forms of phrases, inner directions of thought, the mind’s simplest reactions, I am in constant pursuit of my intellectual being. Thus, when I am able to grasp a form, however imperfect, I hold on to it, afraid to lose all thought. As I know I do not do myself justice, I suffer from it, but I accept it in fear of complete death.
This is as acute a description of mental fragmentation as I have ever read. What makes Artaud remarkable is his ability to speak from within the zone of psychic otherness and disorientation. In the above passage, he sounds like a doctor diagnosing his own mental illness — yet he is also the patient with the illness. Here is an example of his weird writing, which to me is a form of poetry:
One can speak of the good mental health of Van Gogh who, in his whole adult life, cooked only one of his hands and did nothing else except once to cut off his left ear,
in a world in which every day one eats vagina cooked in green sauce or penis of newborn child whipped and beaten to a pulp,
just as it is when plucked from the sex of its mother.
And this is not an image, but a fact abundantly and daily repeated and cultivated throughout the world.
And this, however delirious this statement may seem, is how modern life maintains its old atmosphere of debauchery, anarchy, disorder, delirium, derangement, chronic insanity, bourgeois inertia, psychic anomaly (for it is not man but the world which has become abnormal), deliberate dishonesty and notorious hypocrisy, stingy contempt for everything that shows breeding.
Insistence on an entire order based on the fulfillment of a primitive injustice, in short, of organized crime.
Things are going badly because sick consciousness has a vested interest right now in not recovering from its sickness. This is why a tainted society has invented psychiatry to defend itself against the investigations of certain superior intellects whose faculties of divination would be troublesome.
. . . In comparison with the lucidity of Van Gogh, which is a dynamic force, psychiatry is no better than a den of apes who are themselves obsessed and persecuted and who possess nothing to mitigate the most appalling states of anguish and human suffocation but a ridiculous terminology, worthy product of their damaged brains.
(Artaud, from “Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society,” pub. 1947).
One can see again in that passage the double effect of a voice both of the sane, sober and lucid doctor who diagnoses, and the insane and irrational patient who is diagnosed. Artaud’s writing reads as if it has been seared with the mental pain that he experienced. Furthermore he was intensively aware of his own condition and derived from it an entire poetics. He wrote that “No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell.” He also wrote that “All true language is incomprehensible, like the chatter of a beggar’s teeth.” It is as if embedded in every sentence he wrote is an irresistible crux of a mind that is torn apart. The message of each of his sentences is of extremity: yet this extremity was his natural psychological situation, and in that sense, not extreme but normal for him. With Artaud we go back to seeing the weird in the normal, negative Western sense: the weird as bad, scary, dangerous, potentially destructive and painful. Instead of a positive formulation of no-mind and silence such as we saw above in Ryokan, we see in Artaud a negative formulation of silence as the aftermath of destruction, felt as something harsh, natural and inevitable:
Written poetry is worth reading once, and then should be destroyed. Let the dead poets make way for others. Then we might even come to see that it is our veneration for what has already been created, however beautiful and valid it may be, that petrifies us.
From Artaud it is a direct progression over to later weird French writers such as Bataille. In addition, older French writers such as Lautreamont may be viewed as precursors to Artaud. No treatment of the negative implications of the word “weird” is really complete without at least a small sample from the writing of Bataille and Lautreamont:
An umbrella, a sexagenarian, a seminarian, the smell of rotten eggs, the hollow eyes of judges are the roots that nourish love.
A dog devouring the stomach of a goose, a drunken vomiting woman, a slobbering accountant, a jar of mustard represent the confusion that serves as the vehicle of love.
A man who finds himself among others is irritated because he does not know why he is not one of the others.
In bed next to a girl he loves, he forgets that he does not know why he is himself instead of the body he touches.
Without knowing it, he suffers from the mental darkness that keeps him from screaming that he himself is the girl who forgets his presence while shuddering in his arms.
(Bataille, from “The Solar Anus”).
Personally I have problems with Bataille as a creative writer. He seems a little over-the-top. He sounds pretentious. Everything he writes about is steeped in extremity, spasm and horror. In this respect he has a very narrow range. Moods of calm, gentleness, comfort, peace, modesty, humility are beyond him. His points regarding the dark side of metaphysics and the subversive nature of eros are well-taken. However, he is like a film director who is only able to make horror movies. My objection to Bataille is that he only deals with a small slice of life in his writings. I suppose his writing makes sense from the perspective of the deathbed, but what about the regular bed we sleep in for the other part of our life? I have trouble with a literature of pure extremity, because it seems to me that there is more to life than pure extremity. Thus, I tend to view Bataille as a rather narrow follow-up to some of the more subversive directions found in Nietzsche.
I view Lautreamont along similar lines. He is a sympathetic figure because he died very young, poor and unknown. His real name was Isidore Ducasse. He was born in 1846 and died in 1870, at the age of only 24. He wrote “Les Chants de Maldoror“ (in English, “The Songs of Maldoror”) in France in the 1860s. It is a long book of prose poems written in a very strange language full of adolescent nihilism which sometimes explodes into sheer sublime weirdness. However, a lot of the time it displays problems similar to what we find in Bataille: a limitation of tone, an inability to write in a manner that is not extreme and grotesque. But one must admire Ducasse for having the deranged daring to write a manuscript so scandalous for his time. There are parts of the book that are shocking to this day. “Maldoror” became a great favorite of the surrealists in the early twentieth century. Andre Breton, with characteristic hyperbole, called it “the expression of a total revelation which seems to surpass human capacities.” It is easy to see why the surrealists liked it from passages such as the following:
[O]ne day, tired of trudging along the steep path on this earthly journey, trudging along like a drunkard through the dark catacombs of life, I slowly raised my splenetic eyes, ringed with bluish circles, towards the concavity of the firmament and I, who was so young, dared to penetrate the mysteries of heaven! Not finding what I was seeking, I lifted my eyes higher, and higher still, until I saw a throne made of human excrement and gold, on which was sitting — with idiotic pride, his body draped in a shroud of unwashed hospital linen — he who calls himself the Creator! He was holding in his hand the rotten body of a dead man, carrying it in turn from his eyes to his nose and from his nose to his mouth; and once it reached his mouth, one can guess what he did with it. His feet were dipped in a huge pool of boiling blood, on the surface of which two or three cautious heads would suddenly rise up like tapeworms in a chamber-pot, and as suddenly submerge again, swift as an arrow. A kick on the bone of the nose was the familiar reward for any infringement of regulations occasioned by the need to breathe a different atmosphere; for, after all, these men were not fish. Though amphibious at best, they were swimming underwater in this vile liquid! . . . until, finding his hands empty, the Creator with the first two claws of his foot, would grab another diver by the neck, as with pincers, and lift him into the air, out of the reddish slime, delicious sauce. And this one was treated in the same way as his predecessor. First he ate his head, then his legs and arms, and last of all, the trunk, until there was nothing left; for he crunched the bones as well. And so it continues, for all the hours of eternity. Sometimes, he would shout: “I created you, so I have the right to do whatever I like to you. You have done nothing to me, I do not deny it. I am making you suffer for my own pleasure.” And he would continue his savage meal, moving his lower jaw, which in turn moved his brain-bespattered beard. Oh reader, does not this last-mentioned detail make your mouth water? Cannot whoever wishes also eat brains just the same, which taste just as good and just as fresh, caught less than a quarter of an hour before in the lake — the brains of a fish? My limbs paralysed, utterly dumb, I contemplated this sight for some time. Thrice I nearly keeled over, like a man in the throes of an emotion which is too strong for him; thrice I managed to keep my feet. No fibre of my body was still; I was trembling like the lava inside the volcano. Finally, my breast so constricted that I could not breathe the life-giving air quickly enough, my lips opened slightly and I uttered a cry … a cry so piercing … that I heard it!
(Lautreamont, from “Les Chants de Maldoror,” pub. 1868).
Whatever else you may think of a text like that, you must most certainly agree that it is weird. Personally, my own favorite book my Ducasse is his short little book called “Poesies” (“Poems”) which he wrote after “Maldoror” and just before he died. Although the book is titled “Poesies,” it does not in fact consist of poems at all, but rather, of a series of short very sober aphorisms pertaining to life, philosophy, and art. The style of these aphorisms is dry and classical, the exact opposite of the style of “Maldoror.” Yet the works are linked by a common tone of haughty rigor and I will end this section with just a couple examples:
Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It closely grasps an author’s sentence, uses his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with a right one.
. . .
Poetry must be made by all and not by one.
Artaud is not the only example of a writer who engages in weird poetry at the verge of what society calls insanity. Another example is the German poet Friedrich Holderlin. Holderlin went insane in his mid-30s. It was at the time that he was going insane that he was also, in the view of many critics, making his best poems. His poems are dispatches from the edge between sanity and insanity and highlight the question of whether poets must push themselves or happen to find themselves pushed toward the verge of silence and insanity in order to make good poems. We also have some poems that were written after his insanity began. A young man and fan of Holderlin named William Waiblinger came to visit him a few times where he was staying. After he went insane, Holderlin was given a place to stay by a German carpenter named Zimmer who liked his poems. Waiblinger wrote a thinly fictionalized novel that was based upon his visits with Holderlin. One of the touching and scary things in this novel, called “Phaeton,” is an account of how in his room at Zimmer’s house, Holderlin had many sheets of paper with stuff written on them. Waiblinger describes how the writing on these pieces of paper was the incoherent ranting of a madman. Waiblinger even provides a long quote from one of these pieces of paper strewn throughout Holderlin’s room, as proof to the reader of how crazy and meaningless the writing was. However, this quoted passage has been read by later critics as in fact having great and beautiful value as poetic writing. Thus it appears that what Waiblinger shows us is the fact of a tragedy. Holderlin’s writing after he went insane was too radical for the people of his time to recognize as potentially having value, and apparently it was destroyed except for the one excerpt that Waiblinger included in his book. Here are a few parts of “In Lovely Blue,” so that you can judge for yourself:
In lovely blue the steeple blossoms
With its metal roof. Around which
Drift swallow cries, around which
Lies most loving blue. The sun,
High overhead, tints the roof tin,
But up in the wind, silent,
The weathercock crows
. . .
Yet so simple
These images, so very holy,
One fears to describe them
. . .
May a man look up
From the utter hardship of his life
And say: Let me also be
Like these? Yes. As long as kindness lasts,
Pure, within his heart, he may gladly measure himself
Against the divine. Is God unknown?
Is he manifest in the sky? This I tend
. . .
man dwells on this earth.
. . .
Laughter seems to grieve me,
After all, I have a heart.
Would I like to be a comet? I think so.
They are swift as birds, they flower
With fire, childlike in purity. To desire
More than this is beyond human measure
. . .
But what do I feel, now thinking of you?
Like brooks, I am carried away
(“In Lovely Blue,” Sieburth trans. pp. 249-250, altered by me).
Actually “In Lovely Blue” is not the only writing by Holderlin which we have from after he went insane. Once in a while when people came to visit him, he would jot down tiny poems for them on the spot, which he signed with the made-up name Scardanelli. It is very weird to me that Holderlin should have written his best poems as he came to the verge of and went over the verge of insanity. I do not understand why it seems to be the case for so many writers that they do their best work as they come to and cross the verge of losing their minds. I think there is both beauty and horror in the fact that authors such as Holderlin and Nietzsche seemed to do their best work as they crossed the verge.
I have always thought of Archilochos as a weird poet because of his vocation. His day job was to be a soldier. For a poet to be a soldier is a weird situation. Think of how it affected Trakl as I have described above. To be a soldier is to see horrifying things. Couple that with the hypersensitivity and mood instability of a poet and you have a recipe for disaster. Yet Archilochos was a hard-headed guy and used gritty satiric irony to get by.
He is one of the earliest remembered Western poets. He lived in Greece in the seventh century B.C. He was born on the island of Paros. The best translations of his work into English are by Guy Davenport, who tells us this in the introduction to his book of translations, “Seven Greeks”:
Archilochos was both poet and mercenary. As a poet he was both satirist and lyricist. Iambic verse is his invention. He wrote the first beast fable known to us. He wrote marching songs, love lyrics of frail tenderness, elegies. But most of all he was what Meleager calls him, “a thistle with graceful leaves.” There is a tradition that wasps hover around his grave. To the ancients, both Greek and Roman, he was The Satirist. . . Archilochos was killed by a man named Crow. The death was either in battle or a fight; nevertheless, Apollo in grief and anger excommunicated Crow from all the temples; so spoke the entranced oracle at Delphi.
Archilochos is the author of one of the earliest known sex poems in the West. The poem to me is weird because of its varying tone. The tone touches upon tenderness, humor, frank eroticism, and ends with a jokey scene of apparent premature ejaculation (the brackets in the text indicate part of the papyrus that were lost):
Back away from that, [she said]
And steady on [ ] Wayward and wildly pounding heart,
There is a girl who lives among us
Who watches you with foolish eyes,
A slender, lovely, graceful girl,
Just budding into supple line,
And you scare her and make her shy.
O daughter of the highborn Amphimedo,
I replied, of the widely remembered
Amphimedo now in the rich earth dead,
There are, do you know, so many pleasures
For young men to choose from
Among the skills of the delicious goddess
It’s green to think the holy one’s the only.
When the shadows go black and quiet,
Let us, you and I alone, and the gods,
Sort these matters out. Fear nothing:
I shall be tame, I shall behave
And reach, if I reach, with a civil hand.
I shall climb the wall and come to the gate.
You’ll not say no, Sweetheart, to this?
I shall come no farther than the garden grass.
Neobulé I have forgotten, believe me, do.
Any man who wants her may have her.
Aiai! She’s past her day, ripening rotten.
The petals of her flower are all brown.
The grace that first she had is shot.
Don’t you agree that she looks like a boy?
A woman like that would drive a man crazy.
She should get herself a job as a scarecrow.
I’d as soon hump her as [kiss a goat's butt].
A source of joy I’d be to the neighbors
With such a woman as her for a wife!
How could I ever prefer her to you?
You, O innocent, true heart and bold.
Each of her faces is as sharp as the other,
Which way she’s turning you never can guess.
She’d whelp like the proverb’s luckless bitch
Were I to foster get upon her, throwing
Them blind, and all on the wrongest day.
I said no more, but took her hand,
Laid her down in a thousand flowers,
And put my soft wool cloak around her.
I slid my arm under her neck
To still the fear in her eyes,
For she was trembling like a fawn,
Touched her hot breasts with light fingers,
Spraddled her neatly and pressed
Against her fine, hard, bared crotch.
I caressed the beauty of all her body
And came in a sudden white spurt
While I was stroking her hair.
(Archilochos, trans. Guy Davenport, written about 650 B.C., discovered on papyrus used for mummy wrapping).
6. Lenore Kandel
There were many weird poets in the 1960s. I want to mention one who you may not have heard of. Her name is Lenore Kandel. She was born in 1932. In 1966, she wrote a book of poetry on the general theme of how sex and divinity are two linked things. It was called “The Love Book.” “The Love Book” consisted of eight pages and four poems, including one called “To Fuck with Love.” The book was banned by the U.S. government and led to one of the many obscenity trials of the age.
Here is part of one of her poems from “The Love Book” that led to the obscenity trial:
there are no ways of love but / beautiful /
I love you all of them
I love you / your cock in my hands
stirs like a bird
in my fingers
as you swell and grow hard in my hand
forcing my fingers open
with your rigid strength
you are beautiful / you are beautiful
you are a hundred times beautiful
I stroke you with my loving hands
pink-nailed long fingers . . .
(from “God/Love Poem”).
She was involved in the hippie movement in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. She spoke at the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, which occurred on January 14, 1967. She was once a lover of Gary Snyder. She also went out with the poet Lew Welch. She was the basis for the character named Ramona Swartz in Jack Kerouac’s novel “Big Sur.” Eventually she married a member of the motorcycle gang, Hell’s Angels, named Bill Fritsch. One day they were riding his chopper and it crashed, crushing her spine. Ever since then she has been in obscurity but apparently she is still alive somewhere. Here is one of her poems showing you how wild and free she is:
First they slaughtered the angels
Tying their thin white legs with wire cords
And opening their silk throats with icy knives
They died fluttering their wings like chickens
And their immortal blood wet the burning Earth
We watched from underground
From the gravestones, the crypts
Chewing our bony fingers
Now in the aftermath of morning
We are rolling away the stones from underground, from the caves
We have widened our peyote-visioned eyes
And rinsed our mouths with last night’s wine
We have caulked the holes in our arms,
And flung libations at each other’s feet
And we shall enter into the streets and walk among them and do battle
Holding our lean and empty hands upraised
We shall pass among the strangers of the world like a bitter wind
And our blood will melt iron
And our breath will melt steel
We shall stare face to face with naked eyes
And our tears will cause Earthquakes
And our wailing will cause mountains to rise and the Sun to halt
They shall slaughter no more angels
Not even us
(Lenore Kandel, “First they slaughtered the angels”).
And here is another poem of hers, apparently written more recently after her motorcycle accident, which was published in Poetry Flash in 2001:
In New Mexico
He put his rumpled body
between me and the police
when the DA swore he’d arrest
me for reading my poetry
Here, when I was motorcycle smashed
he cooked dinners for me
that I couldn’t eat
His heart was as tender as
a cactus without any spines
a rose with soft thorns
(Lenore Kandel, “Gregory”).
I believe that poem is about Gregory Corso. He was a pretty weird poet too. In fact, it occurs to me that every single poet who ever lived was weird.
Kandel once said that “the divine is not separate from the beast.” Here is another one of her poems:
Do you believe me when I say / you’re beautiful
I stand here and look at you out of the vision of my eyes
and into the vision of your eyes and I see you and you’re an
and I see you and you’re divine and I see you and you’re a
and you’re beautiful
the divine is not separate from the beast; it is the total creature that
the messiah that has been invoked is already here
you are that messiah waiting to be born again into awareness
you are beautiful; we are all beautiful
you are divine; we are all divine
divinity becomes apparent on its own recognition
accept the being that you are and illuminate yourself
by your own clear light
(Kandel, “Hard Core Love”).
Kandel’s poetics is indicated in the following quote:
Poetry is never compromise. It is the manifestation/translation of a vision, an illumination, an experience. . . The aim is toward the increase of awareness. It may be awareness of the way a bird shatters the sky with his flight or awareness of the difficulty and necessity of trust or awareness of the desire for awareness or the fear of awareness. . . This seems to me to imply one primary responsibility on the part of the poet — that he tell the truth as he sees it. That he tell it as beautifully, as amazingly, as he can; that he ignite his own sense of wonder; that he works alchemy within the language — these are the form and existence of poetry itself.
(available at http://www.divineanimal.com/contents.htm).
I had ended my essay above. But I put Gudding after the end. Because that is where we all are: all living poets are here, after the end of all safe and traditional conclusions that preceded. Here, in this addendum, this extra supplement (Derrida), I want to add a note about the poems of Gabriel Gudding. Gudding writes as a sort of eminem in English professor circles, subversive from within the academy. We can see this immediately by reading this poem (from a prior issue of Mipo):
in Normal, Illinois
who goes but youth
and glorious small Christians
their limbs are warm, the girls have little doves,
the boys grow baby turkeys
there is no talk of Auntie Christ
no talk of boobies or of ding dongs there.
I want to run in and shout
“I have a ding dong and held the boobies!”
but I stay in the traffic
and the centuries
(Gudding, “Outside the Wittenberg Lutheran Youth Center”).
The text indicates that there is no non-weird way to describe that scene. The scene is an observed landscape of religious people near a church. The name of the town is deliberately over-genericized, in a sort of oversignification of the referent, the “town.”
The subject matter he chose was the exterior view of a suburban American church center on a spring day. He wanted to make sure to include the effect of the flapping yellow police tape around the square of pipe excavation on the periphery, as well as the bulbous SUVs. The desentimentalization which occurs here is beyond the Marx Brothers. It’s like Lenny Bruce met Derrida in the afterlife (Derrida being deeply embarrassed, not having predicted it) and the Three Stooges show up. And Curly Joe (smelling of aftershave on his bald noggin) splats fried eggs down on a polished white dish, “one up!” at the New York Automat, before he was discovered. For it was not only Rita Hayworth who was “discovered.” Gudding’s text critiques fame as both institution and aura. His search for aura in a technological setting that Walter Benjamin could only have dreamt of (in his worst nightmares) leads to deliberate manipulations of word in social satire that is either funny or frightening, depending on your own mood.
The “boobies and ding dongs,” you can just hear one of the characters of The Simpsons, or King of the Hill, saying this, slurping a virtual brew. Gudding sketches out a frontier where winter wreck and waste eventually ends and green grass begins. However, he systematically deconstructs every notion by the reader that they can somehow short-circuit or Ipodize the seasons to delete the rot and ringtone the renewal.
Line 2, “who goes but youth,” is in a mock-archaic style, an effect gained via the deployment of the inversion, “goes but,” and the mildly nature-personifying “youth.” There is wholesale outmoded value demolition going on here. This is unusual, because his intelligence is obviously high-functioning. In other words he is getting crazy in text without going crazy in life. This is performed via recurrence of the comic as a mode, heightened by a deconstructive sensibility clearly refined in the same washed mixture of Bataille, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Saussure, Dr. Suess, Ashbery, and an internet-full mind-cabinet of others. He is very well read and a technical virtuoso. My first reaction to his writing was aversion, distaste. Then I realized the sign-play. I didn’t see it at first: it exposed a blind spot. This is so often the case where the weird hits the normal. But beyond this position, Gudding is also capable of additional meta-effects, what we might wish to designate as the mega-weird:
In the video store today
of John Travolta wearing sunglasses
of Laurence Fishburne
under a hat
of Drew Barrymore
of Meg Ryan
on the phone
I am growing old
I can take even more
I go into the foreign
What the hell they doing
fairly handsome But
Where the guns
They are not safe
These movies not
safe. Something wrong
in foreign film
have safety What the hell they doing
in other countries
(Gudding, “Fern Culture”).
This is so weird it crosses the DMZ and gets back to calm and dignity again, even unironic belief. This is what I meant by Gudding being like hints of the green grass in smell of snowmelt. As well as decaying cat. The voice-shifting here is worthy of a chameleon caught in a confetti factory. First the fat spoiled boy covered by chocolate in the “Willy Wonka” remake .. Then crosscut to Jackie Chan flying up side of a building . . . Then “Killing Fields” . . . then the documentary of the real Killing Fields . . . The “real” killing fields.
Again, Benjamin specified “aura” as it related to mechanical reproduction technology of the image as it existed at his time. What would he make of cgi? The existential connotations are beyond awe-inspiring. They cannot be conceived of: in Gudding’s deconstructions, a glimpse of a humor beyond the white space is faintly visible. He hints at a divine comedy without the divine. This is right at the edge, and weird. (On the cover of his latest paperback poetry book there is a little picture of apparently himself, the author, GG, in his little Superman cape and tight leggings. I shit you not. He allows his text to fart (how rude! He‘s got a good job! He‘s not Bukowski at the post office!)):
The day I killed you, the virile paper wasp
I cursed my sicko self
as if I’d shot an albatross
What a dorky buzzing, overwrought
kazoo-playing elf, who but you
could have gotten lost
between the pane and sky and window-shelf?
Rippy little fart: drunk
as out of a minute hand’s saloon
I watched you bouncing
at the window like a
(“Dear Paper Wasp”).
Every possible mythologizing, every possible transcendent, beautiful invention has been removed. He lays bare the flesh. Is that what we wish to see? In this manner, his text constitutes an ongoing critique of the impetus of the internet and other current media toward Reality Shows, Reality-This, Reality-That — what would a time-traveler from the past think if he was flipping the channels, from “Survivor V: Titicaca Rendezvous,” to old mottled rerun of “Fantasy Island” (the harmless lil’ midget in his white fur cloak. . . Backstage he was a serial lech). There is horror in the humor. But then the weird reverses itself, things are funny, sober, light again. His text becomes “just another one of the poems out there” . . . you move on with your life. You go on to other things. You go read a Milosz poem. But you wonder: how would Milosz have described an American suburban church center setting with Franklin Graham glossy brochure; how would he capture the buzzy-light sensation of going to (or McJobbing at) a Blockbuster? How would he eulogize a dead wasp if his relationship to god (or nothingness) was much different, post modernized, Americanized? Is the foreign accent toward the end of his Blockbuster Movies poem above an “authentic” accent or a kitsch accent like of the Laotian guy on “King of the Hill”? His approach is somewhat reminiscent of the Californian painter Brandon Bird. He takes the weird in its traditional direction: a whole new one.
© Jack Anders 2005, 2013, 2014