In the classroom, in the writing workshop, the killing criticism among undergraduates is the “P” word: Pretentiousness. Some kid says it about a story with a borrowed form or a poem quoting Aristotle, and that workshop is over, that writer is dead in the water, you’ll never see that poem again. To be honest, it’s an accusation that’s leveled at so many aspects of writing—foreign words and praises, philosophic quotes, big words, little words, a code of ethics, a lack of a code of ethics, the evocation of myth (that children would be anti-myth or myth-free terrifies the hell out of me)… if pretentious means to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed, isn’t every writing teacher exhorting their student to “write what you don’t know” (which I do) encouraging pretentiousness?
I think there’s more at work here. The history of writing has been the history of reading, and for the longest time, literacy was low and attached to money, privilege, and a classical education. Montaigne knew Greek and Latin and probably that dirty dirty poem by Catullus—but his French, ugh, sounds so pretentious. In our weird idea of warped American democracy, anybody showing signs of uppity privilege looks like a hipster dickhead. “I used to love ideals, but that wasn’t cool,” D.A. Powell writes in the poem below.
And so all the work of the knower must ironically become even more encoded—elitist, even—veiled in jargon, sarcasm, and the inarticulate hero saying articulate things (Homer Simpson: “To alcohol! The solution to, and cause of, all life’s problems!” (and by the way, it is commonly believed that quoting Homer Simpson is not pretentious—but that would be a mistake)).
Prosody is a kind of encoding, an ordering of the world that is artificial, and therefore, I guess, pretentious. So then along comes free verse, which just, you know, sounds more free, like free love. But the music is hidden there, encoded, just as well.
Are there subject matters that poets ought not write about? Because they are unspeakably painful or not to be fully known and therefore the occasion of pretentiousness? Because they are uncouth, inappropriate, not for the dining room? Because a love that dare not speak its name?
I have been including illustrations all this week from a beloved 1941 book about Paul Bunyan, Work Giant. It is filled with encoded secret signals about sexuality and only the initiated, only those trained to look for it, can see Paul’s red hanky in his right pocket, the long, shaftlike neck of Babe the Blue Ox. It’s there for you to see, and when you do, you feel good about yourself a little, don’t you? That you have the intelligence and imagination to enter into the elite society of the Private Club of the Pretentious Knowers. I have created a secret club of writers who have encoded a copy of their book to me, with the elite and special inscription, “For Brian, you were great in bed.” Was I truly great in bed for all those writers? It’s a secret. Books are souvenirs, but they are also secrets that can be found out if you just take the time.
I don’t know if it’s good or bad. I do know that much of my own self-education was powered by a desire to crack every secret code—to learn every language and every system of hermetic knowledge and every secret handshake to every secret society.
D.A. Powell’s poetry pleases me because it feels encoded, full of music, and image, and memory, and emotion, sure, but a private joke, too, a joke of the society of Babe the Blue Ox is Secretly a Penis. As a gay man writing about the poetry of a gay man of the same age, can I just say that when you spend a lifetime making a routine of hiding certain facts about yourself that really ought to be evident and open, you take great pleasure for the rest of your life to cultivate irony, private jokes, and new languages. Call us pretentious.
Here is a “The Great Unrest”, a poem in Powell’s glorious new collection, Useless Landscapes (Graywolf, 2012), that is openly and secretly my favorite musing on age and desire. Let me lay in the moonlight,” he writes, and then corrects his own grammar, “lie”, and with the correction of grammar, the correction of meaning. Everything has a secret meaning, there for you to find and thrill to.
THE GREAT UNREST
You’d think, bedraggled as I am by the illness of my age,
I’d be able to lounge a little.
That I’d shut out the noise, as others do,
and I would sigh and sleep.
Let me eat Tootsie Pops, I’d think. Let me lay in the moonlight
And grow the opposite of babyfat.
Lie, I mean. Let me lie. I have had to wrestle with grammar
all my life. And what people call ideals.
I used to love ideals, but that wasn’t cool. Plus there was money to be had.
And ass. Scads of ass.
Now I forget. The principal’s your pal and not the principle.
At least I’ve retained that.
Give up your sleepless nights the man on TV said. Talking to me.
Like, how did he know?
I could have dozed through half a dozen shows and all the ads.
Even commercial noise
Might have eventually been absorbed into my dreams.
It might have become my dreams.
But it’s hard for me to lie still (lay still?) While I am getting fucked.
It’s late and you been at me all night and I hadn’t risen from it.
I was tired.
I’m even more tired.
But now I’m up.
D.A. Powell is up. Get it? Get it? Useless Landscapes is the best book to have in bed. And D. A. Powell is the best poet to ride out my guest blog this week. It’s been a filthy privilege to write about my favorite bedmates. I hope to have many more literary bedmates in the future.