Take a look at these familiar lines from Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan”:
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
I have thought millions of times about the line “Did she put on his knowledge with his power.” That question is strictly out of Yeats’s head. There is no warrant for it in the original myth, or anywhere. When you are being raped by a god, you do not “put on his knowledge.” Anyway it never happens in Ovid. So what was it that prompted Yeats to take that line of thought?
My hypothesis has always been that, after Yeats became a celebrity, he had a lot of experience with women wanting to starfuck him, and that he had pondered the way in which a starfucker is partly driven by a desire to share—however obliquely—in the famous person’s glamour. Such is the magic of celebrity. People feel they’re special just by sharing an elevator with you. I passed Johnny Depp on the street in New York once. Joan Jett went to my high school.
Of course, if all this is right, then Yeats’s poem is more about guilty sex with a groupie than about the dreadful consequences foreseeable in violence. But hasn’t it always felt like it kinda needs to mean something other than just the surface stuff? Yeats’s amendment to the myth has a vulnerable and gratuitous quality, I think. Yes: if the poem is highly satisfactory—and it is—I want to propose it’s because we’re all intuiting that Yeats is confessing something here. He’s that swan.
“Give money me, take friendship whoso list.” On the one hand, that line is attractive because of its perversity and impiety. Good. But there’s also the matter of the delectably screwed-up syntax. Not “Give me money.” Give money me.
I showed this line to Margaret Kuchler (vide the post from Sunday) to persuade her she was overplaying her hand to say all twisted syntax is bad. She saw it right away. “Give money me” is obviously good. Hard to say why.
“Something wicked this way comes,” not “Something wicked comes this way.” Good. Why. Why does the Martian-ness work here but not everywhere? We need a science of this.
Another thing we need to bring back. Epigrams. You ever read the one by Martial…. I don't know how it goes in Latin but in English it’s something like: “You say all the girls are on fire for you, Quintus. You: who have the face of a man swimming underwater.”
Write twenty poems like that. Poems that would actually do somebody some good.
Dolly Lemke’s even better. She has this new series of poems, most of ’em less than ten lines, and they give you an X and a Y coordinate, both. They’re all called “I’m So Into You.” Lemme ask her if she will let me throw two or three in here.
I’M SO INTO YOU
By now you’ve figured out
what I wrote in your book
that I almost love you
but in a we can never be vegan together
sort of way and honestly
I would rather feel ill
for the rest of my days
than give up fresh goat cheese
I’M SO INTO YOU
Remember that time
you took two lorazepam
thinking it was aspirin
and you awoke from tepid sleep
more confused than ever
You are so cute
and you have a great body
I’M SO INTO YOU
But I’m way more into
you kneeling in front of me
to tell me how amazing I am
How dreadfully courageous
I am to say those things
and me just nodding my head
at your radiant and rugged beauty
Here’s a pleasant game. I call it “Weapons-Grade Literary Trivia Puzzler.” The idea isn’t to ask the other players questions they can’t answer. No. What would be the point of that. The idea is to ask them questions they can answer—just not right now for some reason.
Get the idea? You don’t score any points for stumping people. If you ask a question and nobody knows and nobody cares, you lose. You only win by making the other people squirm with delicious agony because they do know the answer—or anyhow they certainly used to know it—they just can’t think of it right now.
Hard to come up with an example that will work here. OK, how ’bout: Name three novels by Melville besides Moby-Dick. Now, of course, some assholes will answer that question instantly. Others could not possibly care less. But English Departments are ramjam with people whose self-definition depends on being able to answer questions like that promptly—and yet who are unable to do so. It’s those people who make WGLTP fun. I have no problem confessing I am one of these.
Also it’s fun because the game kinda requires the players to know each other pretty well. You have to know what topics Sarah thinks she’s an expert on, so you can aim your questions “right where she lives”….
Mostly it’s not that poets are bad. It’s that they’re nothing. Most readings too. They’re not bad; they’re nothing.
This is something they should have taught us in MFA-land. Bad is not the devil. Bad can be good. The devil is what you see all around you: large piles of neither-good-nor-bad, towering stacks of nothingness. Nothingness and nobody’s ever gonna reread it. Miles and miles of poetry that completely passes for art—but nobody loves it.
Actually, sitting here right now, I can think of at least two poets who aren’t any good, they’re bad, they're wrong about everything, they're dumb and icky—but they are something. I rush to read whatever they print, and I would walk through five miles of flaming snot to see them do their thing. I don’t even care that they’re bad! They’re something!