Notes toward Understanding Donald Trump’s Market Populism (Part I)

The fourth estate increasingly acknowledges that Trump’s appeal owes more (everything?) to his evocation of emotions than any policy statements. Back in September, Domenico Montanaro argued that “Trump’s supporters aren’t with him because they want to hear the wonky details. They want someone to channel what they feel.” He concluded that disgust was the most important emotion. According to Thomas B. Edsall, Trump has “tapped into” an evolutionary (!!!) dynamic of disgust and purity . In New York Times editorial that’s almost as nonsensical as your average Republican debate, Edsall patches together observations by political scientists and evolutionary psychologists to conclude that anxious conservatives are motivated by a deep-seated desire for conformity to social norms. Trump is a political “alpha male” because he’s a marketing “genius” who knows how to communicate with fearful voters seeking an authoritarian leader who tells it like it is.

There are several problems with the liberal media’s approach to the Donald. For starters, taken as whole, the press response does little to diminish Trump’s standing. They’ve been pouring water on his duck’s back. Months ago, pundits on the left and right predicted that his campaign, which the candidate himself didn’t appear to be taking seriously, would soon flame out. The opposite happened; as he continued to lead in (largely meaningless) polls, the rest of the candidates attempted to “trump Trump.” As a result, his current closest rivals (Cruz and Rubio) increasingly resemble him. Those candidates who continued to pursue their own loopy paths (Fiorina, Carson, Paul) began to lose traction as the spectacle become Trumpified.

Following are a few observations that may help to explain the apparently irresistible rise of Donald Trump.

Populism is ubiquitous. Populism names that part of political discourse that is grounded in public feeling, otherwise known as common sense. Populism shouldn’t be confused with racism, fascism, or demagoguery. Racist, fascistic, and demagogic politicians often deploy populism, but it’s a mistake to regard them as enjoying privileged access to political feeling. All political candidates use emotional appeals. Some of the nation’s more progressive political leaders are widely acknowledged to be populists: Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, JFK… (Trump’s closest historical predecessors may well be tough-talking East Coaster Kennedy and the first true “market populist,” Bill Clinton.)  President Obama was populist on the campaign trail, as was Jimmy Carter. This doesn’t mean that politicians must necessarily be populist. Appeals to reason, technocratic authority, and objectivity can also be attractive. The problem emerges when reporters and analysts align populism with fear, aggression, and disgust, and associate these emotional states with right-wing agendas. This alignment strengthens right-wing populism. Public optimism (hope) and contentment (complacency) are regarded as weaker forces. “Progressives” (as the name suggests) are imagined to be motivated by these weaker feelings, and in the process are denied access to public feeling more generally. (This doesn’t say anything about the neoliberal’s embrace of technocratic rationality, which is another problem…)

In the U.S. two-party system, populist movements pose a greater threat to the party that endorses them then the party that opposes them. In the 1890s, the People’s Party was a genuine “third party”; it’s supporters included Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans. Ultimately, the People’s Party joined the Democrats to run William Jennings Bryan as a “fusion” candidate; Bryan lost. The merger failed because the populists were genuine in their opposition to the two-party system, and wouldn’t vote for a Democratic candidate, and because until the merger both mainstream parties had reviled the People’s party as full of anarchists and bums–that mud stuck, and strengthened Republican opposition. Something similar happened in 1912, when Roosevelt’s Progressive or “Bull Moose” party split the Republican vote, handing the election to Wilson. Remember Ross Perot? Running to the right of George H. W. Bush, he helped bring Bill Clinton to Washington. Today, the Republican party is suffering the consequences of it’s greedy effort to gobble up Tea Party opposition. In our fast-paced, historically myopic mediascape, it’s easy to forget that the Tea Party originally opposed the second President Bush. They formed in opposition to his fiscal irresponsibility and interventionism. Almost immediately, the Tea Party was bought out by the Republican establishment, which sought to incorporate it as a new, more ardent and fundamentally conservative “base.” Trump benefits from the chaos this caused. The good news is that any Democrat will probably beat him–Bernie Sanders has a chance. The bad news is that his spectacle will likely benefit the most mainstream elements in the Democratic Party, leading to a Clinton victory. (Katha Pollitt, for example, endorses H.C. as the more “electable” candidate. My opposition to Clinton stems from  my fear that, like her husband or Tony Blair, she’ll promote a “centrist” strategy that will continue many of the most pernicious aspects of neoliberaism.)

Trump’s “market populism” is not a political aberration. Despite a lack of political/military experience, Trump’s not ‘outside’ the political estabishment because the establishment is three-fourths spectacle. He televisual popularity, so often passed over without comment by the press, has everything to do with his front-runner status. In a public sphere that is almost entirely organized by mass media, the President IS a mediated image. The nation publicly conceded that point when it elected Reagan, the actor-President. Furthermore, the particular kind of celebrity that Trump presents is The success of The Apprentice is not remarkable in itself: it was only a variation of a currently popular genre, which casts the successful entrepreneur as public hero. In recent years, Hollywood’s invested heavily in biopics of billionaires: The Social Network, Steve Jobs, and so forth.  In the Gilded Age, they were termed “titans of industry”; today they’re called, more simply, “the job creators.” The postmodern synthesis of ‘big business” and populism (which, years ago, Tom Frank termed “market populism”) seems contradictory until you consider the common sense understanding of globalization. Titans are enormous, powerful, ‘larger-than-life’ figures who nonetheless can relate to mere humans. When competition over labor (jobs sent overseas) and resources (global climate change) was scaled up–from nation to globe, the creators and manipulators of the public imagination (the spectacle makers) promoted the concept that us mortals would need help from the titans in order to survive. Trump is no more of a savior than the Transformers or Marvel’s Avengers. He recently compared his proposed border wall to China’s great wall. His wall, he said, wasn’t nearly so big. The implication is obvious: by appearing so confident about his large-scale projects that he can refer to them modestly rather than ambitiously, he confers superhero status upon himself.

The People is a phantom. The “silent majority” is a ghost, or projection. This doesn’t mean that populism isn’t effective. It’s effective precisely because it’s misunderstood. The most troubling aspect of the commentary on Trump I began with is the use of verbs like “channel” and “tap into.” The implication being that somewhere “out there” in “heartland America” there were a lot of people who already felt disgusted, angry, xenophobic, etc. Yes, of course, such feelings existed–but they didn’t exist as people. They existed as feelings. Feelings are misunderstood when regarded as dormant or latent; they must be felt, named, acted upon in order for them to exist. The feeling wasn’t there until it was. When the mainstream media, in an effort to understand Trump’s popularity, imagines that he represents a segment of body politic that was always there but unnoticed, they produce the very thing they wish to understand.

As I said: preliminary notes. Part II applies some of these general observations to more specific aspects of the phenomena.


In the year following Michael Brown’s murder on 9 August 2014, I wrote poems that attempted to reconfigure events of police violence directed at people of color between the day Trayvon Martin was killed and Brown’s death. My accounts work against the mainstream press accounts, which tend to make the police and their private-sector stand-ins the narrative subjects, and the victims their objects. Drawing on news accounts, I flip the official script, revealing the unjustified, racist nature of state violence.

Brian Holmes recently created WATERSHEDS, an interactive map that uses some of the poems to chart police violence against people of color on the Mississippi watershed. In this context, the poems help to intensify his point: that Political Ecology begins when we say Black Lives Matter.

His project is available here.

Brian’s introduction to the map, and a pdf of my poems, is available on the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor’s Compass website.

Philip Levine’s Populist Poetics

Philip Levine died on 14 February 2015. Born in Detroit in 1928, he worked in the auto plants by the time he was fourteen. Advanced education altered his life’s course. He graduated from Wayne State, then earned an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1957. He worked a different kind of line after that, teaching writing at CSU-Fresno. As his Poetry Foundation biography states, “Though Levine did not return to live in Detroit, its people and economy would remain central concerns of his poetry.” His focus on Motor City sentiments caused him to be received, in the words of Ed Hirsch, as an “ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland.”

In an “appraisal” to accompany Levine’s obituary in the New York Times, Dwight Garner identifies the poetics that contribute to Hirsch’s summation. According to Garner, Levine’s contribution to his craft lay in his ability to write “short lines” that are “instantly identifiable” and posses “a muscular and deceptively simple sense of subterranean rhythm.” Put these observations together, you get the Levine we now remember: the writer of a democratic (Whitmanian) poetry for the Fordist Era. He conveyed the “people and economy” of Fordism in a style that was easy to understand: a rugged, working-class style, undermined (“subterranean”) or ironized by its rhythms.

So phrased, this view of Levine’s poetry misses its target somewhat. Garner’s essay, the Times obituary, and similar reminiscences mis-characterize some aspects of Levine’s work. Wordsworth and Williams, not Whitman, provide better models for his poetry. Its true that Levine’s rhythms are subtle and effective, but not because they undermine his proletarian machismo. His best moments are hardly ironic. On the contrary, Levine was often earnest to a fault. Much of his verse is hobbled by a too-sly humility. But just as frequently, his fidelity to traditional rhythms and the American idiom contributes to a welcome sincerity. I think it would be better to remember Levine as a kind of Motor City Romantic; a postmodern (post Williams) Wordsworth. He used modernist poetic techniques well, but his is more a Romantic than a Modernist in his efforts to sublimate (rather than objectify) the world he observed. It’s a mistake to think of him as an ironic writer or a realist; I think this view emerges as a kind of shorthand only because his subject matter was industrial. His actual approach is more like Wordsworth’s than Whitman’s. His sincerity does not tend toward an erotic dissolution of bodies, but a sublimation constructed out of objective details, recollected in tranquility.

In a blurb on the back of Levine’s New Selected Poems (1994), Peter Stitt (originally writing in The Georgia Review) gets it more right. He puts Levine in the “tradition of William Carlos Williams–eschewing opera in favor of jazz, the drawing room in favor of the kitchen, the silk-covered cushion in favor of the bus-station bench.” Stitt focuses on Levine’s modernism–his improvisations in the American idiom, his focus on ordinary, working-class settings. I situate this modernist impulse within a larger Romantic tradition; the result is a kind of populist proto-postmodernism.

Levine learned what poetry might be during the late 1940s and 1950s. During these decades, the New Critics stressed innovation within national traditions. They placed modern poems (Eliot, Frost, the Imagists) in the context of the English lyric tradition (Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, etc.). This approach was politicized in the 1950s, when it collided with an anti-modernist, anti-communist backlash perpetuated by some of the nation’s editors. (See Al Filreis’s Counter-revolution of the Word). Cold-War nationalism emerging to smash the modern aesthetics that had been by then appropriated by the Popular Front. In this context, Levine tilted left. As his Poetry Foundation biography has it, “he was fascinated by the events of the Spanish Civil War. . . Levine resolved ‘to find a voice for the voiceless.’”

It’s here that his Romanticism first surfaces. Numerous poems in Lyrical Ballads (1798) attempt to find such a voice. For example, in “The Female Vagrant” Wordsworth lends classical form to the most voiceless of his contemporaries. The woman’s story is her own but revised to accommodate the aesthetic framework dictated by traditional rhyme & meter:

By Derwent’s side my Father’s cottage stood,
(The Woman thus her artless story told)
One field, a flock, and what the neighbouring flood
Supplied, to him were more than mines of gold.
Light was my sleep; my days in transport roll’d:
With thoughtless joy I stretch’d along the shore
My father’s nets, or watched, when from the fold
High o’er the cliffs I led my fleecy store,
A dizzy depth below! his boat and twinkling oar. (Lyrical Ballads)

After noting the woman’s artlessness, Wordsworth lends her his own sensibility. He contributes not only his formal sensibility (his rhythms and diction), but his attention and emphasis. What is the rest of this opening stanza but an abbreviation of the first several books of The Prelude? Here are “days in transport roll’d,” “thoughtless joy,” and even a sublime encounter enacted by boat & cliff. There is clearly a democratic politics at work here, but its primarily organized through the choice of subject matter, rather than the text’s formal performance. A similar gesture often opens Levine’s poems, for similar reasons. For example, “These Streets,” in which the story of Ida Bellow is told to the poet by her daughter, conveyed via elegantly crafted tetrameter:

If I told you that the old woman

named Ida Bellow was shot to death

for no more than $5 and that a baby

of eighteen months saw it all from

where she wakened on the same bed

but can’t tell because she can’t speak,

you’d say I was making it up.

Like Wordsworth, he adapts his recollections of intense conversations with politically invisible subjects to his own formal, ‘poetic’ imperatives. Formally, his verse is a little looser; he eschews rhyme & allows numerous substitutions in the meter; but this is metrical verse, not Williams’ free verse or “variable foot.” Nor should it recall Whitman. Here the breath is constrained, not expanded. It is channeled into rhythms more classically exacting than Whitman’s–or Williams’.

Levine’s Romanticism is leavened by two modernist techniques, both of which clearly derive from Williams’ version of imagism. First, whereas Wordsworth immediately summarizes biographical details, Levine, like Williams, tends to focus upon descriptions of the immediate, ordinary material conditions. “These Streets” continues,

If I

took you by the hand and led you down

street after street until we arrived

at a door that seemed no different

from the rest and entered to behold

the flowered coverlet not yet washed

on the single iron bed, the calendar

stopped on the second Sunday in February,

the cluttered three-burner stove, the sink

of cracked dishes, the old wheelchair

Ida used to get around,

In these lines, the Romantic imperative to find a voice for the voiceless is sustained by describing the objective environment. We are presented not with a Whitman-like list of occupations, but an atmosphere grounded in situated particulars, such as one finds in many of the poems Williams wrote in the 1930s. For example, these lines from “View of a Lake”:

Where a

waste of cinders

slopes down to

the railroad and

the lake

stand three children

beside the weed-grown


of a wrecked car

(An Early Martyr and Other Poems, 1935)

Williams’ attention to ordinary materiality helped to guarantee a more general attitude of objectivity. Objective poetry does not eschew sentiment, but insists upon a stronger sense of boundaries between the lyrical subject and the objects of attention. Levine was just sixteen when Williams published The Wedge in 1944. Most of Williams’ introduction to the book concerns making poetry relevant in the face of “The war,” which he regarded as “the first and only thing in the world today.” He aligns himself with the disposed: “Up from the gutter, so to speak. Of necessity.” In this context he defines the poem as “a small (or large) machine made of words.” In a democratic society, poetry would be produced en masse. With a little training, anybody might make one. Williams cast this poetics in an industrial mold:

When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them–without distortion that would mar their exact significances–into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses.

Levine’s best poetry occurs when he understood this; his worst when he cuts too rapidly to the sublime “revelation,” a kind of short-circuit similar to that which Wordsworth performs in the opening lines of “The Female Vagrant.” One of the poems most frequently cited in various obituaries, biographies and reminiscences, “The Fox,” demonstrates Levine at his most Romantic. The poem begins with a baldly stated conceit:

I think I must have lived

once before, not as a man or woman

but as a small, quick fox pursued

through fields of grass & grain

by ladies & gentlemen on horseback.

This is Levine’s (post) anti-modernism; the poem is an idyll, a dream. The fantasy unfolds along elegantly executed trimeter and tetrameter lines. Levine “industrialized” this approach by putting it into a Fordist framework. The fox as Romantic genius easily morphs into a CIO-style celebration of working-class machismo:

My anger is sudden and total,

for I am a man to whom anger

usually comes slowly, spreading

like a fever along my shoulders

and back and turning my stomach

to a stone, but this fox anger

is lyrical and complete, as I stand […]

This is Levine’s populism. It animates the Fordist macho body in a manner similar to Brando’s performance in On the Waterfront (1954). It is not at all ironic; its sincerity is saturated by the fantasy of a coherent self, “lyrical and complete.” The body comes apart in anger, but completes itself in the metaphor; the whole thing is carefully orchestrated, like an opera.

I much prefer the improvisatory, idiomatic, exploratory, objective Levine; the poet who, like Williams or his contemporary Edward Dorn, “knows his place” in relation to the object of his attentions. The best passages of one of Levine’s most consciously imagist poems, “Make It New,” maintain a modernist balance between subjects. The poet and an African-American laborer named Cal spend several days breaking up the curbing along US 24.

“Go slow, man!” but I

was into it. Now, at noon,

we sit under a tree

sharing my lunch.

The poem ends with genuine irony when the poet recollects his young self’s nationalism, here embodied in the gusto with which he applies himself to his task. He works while Cal sleeps; eventually,

a car hisses down the road;

it’s Teddy, the Captain, come

to tell us it’s raining

[. . .]

–we aren’t

ever gonna make Monroe.

The full realization of his embodiment of white supremacy ends the poem (which is also marred by sentimental descriptions of Cal): a fully realized example of white macho New Left countercultural expression. Whitman’s an inevitable predecessor in this context, but only as short-hand. Whitman was optimistic about capitalism’s democratic leveling. He celebrated the arrival of generic man, man in the abstract. Whitman was not wrong; the abstract man could & would produce more abolitionist subjects, queerer subjects. But you won’t understand Levine by reading Whitman.

Of all of Levine’s poems, the best is probably the last one in his New Selected Poems: “A Walk with Tom Jefferson.” His approach to his subject and his idiomatic rhythms recall Williams’ later meditations, such as “To Daphne and Virginia” and “The Host” in The Desert Music (1954). The poem begins with a description of the post-Fordist city:

 Between the freeway

and the gray conning towers

of the ballpark, miles

of mostly vacant lots, once

a neighborhood of small

two-storey wooden houses–

Over sixteen pages, Levine recounts a tour of post-industrial Detroit provided by Tom Jefferson, who he discovers farming among the ruins. They reminisce and ruminate upon a past that somehow led to the present. Strikes and riots are discussed. Tom’s theology is discussed at length; it is grounded in a practical self-reliance. “Making do” is Jefferson’s signature phrase. After the poet walks Tom home, he continues wandering, reflecting on the ignorance he discovers in his own recollections:

We were not

idle hands. Still a kid

when I worked nights

on the milling machines

at Cadillac transmission,

another kid just up

from West Virginia asked me

what was we making,

and I answered, I’m making

2.25 an hour,

don’t know what you’re

making, and he had

to correct me, gently, what was

we making out of

this here metal, and I didn’t know.

The more vulnerable Levine is more interesting. In this poem and several others he receives voicelessness rather than (or while also) giving a voice to his others.

A similar aesthetics can be found in many of Levine’s Black contemporaries. His work should be read in relation to poems by Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Haki Madhubuti. The mixture of romanticism and modernism, of sentiment and objectivity, is often quite similar. But that will have to wait for a future post.

4 Poems Out of Ferguson

In response to the killing of Michael Brown on 9 August 2014 I decided to compose a collection of poems about the affective structure of police violence against Black Americans. The poems document a small number of the deaths that occurred in the two-and-a-half years between Trayvon Martin’s murder on 26 February 2012 & Brown’s.

The poems are composed using a “objectivist” formula derived from Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony. First, I collected all the relevant hits from Google searches on the death in question. Little is publicly known about most of these events. Usually, there are no more than 10-30 reports published on-line, the majority of which repeat & amplify (or diminish) aspects of other reports. I gathered all of the available reports into a single word-processing document.

My next step was to synthesize the reports by constructing a timeline that follows the dead person’s trajectory. This required a major reordering of narrative structures & consumed a majority of my time. Most reports, derived from police press releases & local news websites, develop “law & order” narratives that feature the police as omniscient/heroic subjects. I reorganized the totality of details offered by the various reports into a “plot” that occurred in the lived time of the person (or persons) who died in the encounter.

My next step was to eliminate all the overlap–most stories included the same events, varying only in minor details. I included as many specific details as possible, while describing each action only once. Actions or details repeated by multiple sources were guaranteed a place in the final text, while ones briefly mentioned were occasionally omitted.

I used various media to reconstruct the events. Wishing to provide a setting for the actions (most reports offer little scenic background) I turned to Google maps and street views to clarify distances & deepen the focus. Many reports produced by local TV stations included videos, some of which were produced by the police. Squad car cameras, bystander cellphone videos & surveillance footage increasingly serve not only as a supplement to but as a source of ‘eye-witness’ testimony. I made use of all such sources (provided they were available on-line); when using source texts, I tried to preserve their idioms & jargons, while eliminating the passivity & redundancy of journalistic prose.

Lines are developed according to my system of “harmolodics”: free verse improvisation in which aesthetic & ideological swerves toward truth receive equal weight when making considerations of meter, melody, idiom & so forth.

4 of the first 50 poems can be downloaded here: 4 poems out of Ferguson.


This Thin Memory A-Ha

Eric Elshtain chose a fine title for his book, This Thin Memory A-Ha.We say “A-Ha” when something’s revealed. The exclamation may indicate a object–found it!–or a moment of enlightenment–the little bulb over the head that accompanies a personal enlightenment. Elshtain’s title reflects upon the thinness of these moments. It calls attention to how quickly we forget what we thought we’d found. Memories of our “a-ha” moments are thin.It also suggests the moments when we dimly remember what we’ve learned. The weak memory of lesson’s learned, as when we feel haunted by prior resolutions, commitments, or understandings.

The entire book meditates on the dual feelings of surprise and recollection. Elshtain does not treat these seemingly antithetical states as alternating modes of experience, but as overlapping resonances that structure lyrical epiphanies. I use this word because the merger of expectancy and repetition Elshtain explores derives in large part from the Christian celebration of Ephiphany: a ritual that commemorates the first manifestation of Christ. Looking back to looking forward. The European poetry tradition (along with others) includes a long history of experiments with lyrical epiphanies. The metaphysical poets, the romantics, the moderns: each movement established a new relation between lyric form and the moment when a truth is grasped. My sense of the ‘contemporary poetry scene’ isn’t strong enough for me to say with any certainty whether or not many twenty-first century poets care about the lyric epiphany, but I suspect that many do.  My guess is that many cherish the aesthetic experience (they like the feeling when some essence is intuitively grasped) but would be skeptical of the concept, with its emphasis on essence, intuition, enlightenment.

Elshtain is skeptical, but not because he doubts the concept. He believes in philosophy, rationality, the unconscious and grand narratives. He’s not out to satirize, sabotage or otherwise deconstruct the lyric epiphany. But he doesn’t think they’re easy to come by. He acknowledges a myriad of false starts, stutters, missteps and hesitations. Ultimately, he’s attempting to reconstruct a relationship between lyrical forms and moments when intuition reverses into truth.

The primordial representation of the title phrase is the ocean wave. Each a minor surprise—A-ha!—as it breaks to slither ashore; each a “thin memory” as it withdraws into the sand and sea. In “Averting the Way Inside a Tide,” the poet meditates on the failure to memorize a wave: “How could I ever have / the middle of your memory? [. . .] idealized fluids’ un-erotic swerve?” Nature is motion beyond recollection; it’s a movement we can’t know precisely because it’s “un-erotic.” It transmits affects–a pulse, a crash, a retreat and re-absorption–but without meaning. Nature as drive: the inhuman, unceasing push-pull.

Like many writers before him, Elshtain regards the seashore as a thresh-hold: a liminal zone where human knowledge touches (not quite connecting with) meaning’s limits. Stephen Crane, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop come to mind. Like them, Elshtain explores this zone as an analogy for the poet’s effort to compose at the edges of intelligibility. The poet balances reason and rhythm, as the seashore balances our world with the other. In “Ocean’s Preposition,” the poet, swimming in coastal waters, encounters an octopus:

The octopus locked itself to a spell of leg

and lightninged from moss and bronze

to pulsing red before briefing me–

one billowing writ saying “See!”

The “billowing writ” is also the poet’s gesture. The poem calls attention to its subject by obscuring it with ink. This makes the otherworldly creature a kind of fluctuating mirror; the writer catches a glimpse of himself in the creature’s ability to displace its presence, to make itself obscure. The poem ends with these lines:

Coral brained me for deigning a finger

into the inky deceit; the only signature left

of the elusion.

Note the difference between the event–the swimmer jabs his finger into the ink, striking coral–and the metaphorically dense and alliterative language that describes it. The poet, like the octopus, composes a “billowing writ” that shows itself off in order to make us miss the encounter with the other it describes. Elshtain never forgets the poem’s capacity to generate an “inky deceit.” But this gesture, while ostensibly “poetic” brings us closer to the natural event. “Signature” and “elusion” are not gestures that belong to humans alone. The cephalopod is here to reminds us that deceit, including ‘written’ forms of it, doesn’t require sophisticated psyches. Sophisticated camouflage–therefore aesthetics–is not an exclusively human gesture. In another poem about the same encounter Elshtain uses the phrase “legendary unfunny slug” such that it refers to either poet or octopus.

We get to this epiphany through a combination of naturalism and aestheticism. On the one hand, the naturalist’s description of real-time phenomenon; on  the other, the craftsman’s consideration of form. The first depends upon humble, sincere explorations of phenomena; the second upon wit (metaphor and allusion) and rhythm (the beat, the rhymes, assonance and alliteration). Consider the opening stanzas of “When You Punctuate the Equilibrium”:

only then the men smile over the coelacanth,

cover themselves with sea-made

clays. Suddenly shells will be patchworks of male

and female; our world will be

loaded between rock-beds and will avoid the

flood by being flood; there will be no

more swimming with stones; no more death

circles for wind to wear off the rocks.

Poetry as philosophy. The poem begins with a proposition: human knowledge is predicated upon the “punctuation” of an imagined time of flux and equality, an age without distinctions. A psychological structure projected onto a poetic history of events. Each subsequent phrase tests the proposition against another kind of phenomenon, as they appear in the natural world. First we get the coelacanth. In 1938 this “living fossil” was discovered in the Indian Ocean by Rhodes university ichthyologist, J.L.B. Smith. One “smiles” over this ugly old fish only when regarding it as a confirmation via negation of evolutionary theory. Soon we get Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, a “punctuation of the equilibrium” because it genders shells. The stanzas conclude with an allusion to Charybdis, once a sea monster living under rocks on the Strait of Messina, now the meteorological outcome of wind & rock. These examples are knitted though enjambment. Many individual lines are miniature poems: “and female; our world will be,” “flood by being flood; there will be no,” “circles for wind to wear off the rocks.”

The poem concludes with these lines:

Convince yourself you have a backbone

while I invent another device that

hisses at extinctions; I shiver because that is my

inheritance. Gather your optical

illusions into one last attraction so we’ll never

know whether your down was up,

or your up with just another sham.

Fierce writing. A snarl, a sob.In the present now, we anxiously remind ourselves that “backbone” and fear are the animal in man. These encounters with our bodies’ own waves are gathered into “one last attraction”–an epiphany–that impacts us by swerving away from truth. We are left with reverberations. The past discovered by the present, the present discovered in the past.

I’ve focused on the ecological, but Elshtain tackles politics, both public and domestic, as well. In these poems he mixes slang with theory. Here are the opening stanzas of “Ended Seriously Loco”:

and way off the register

it did having

involved corpses

in their own portrayal.

Rendered hypothetical

blues quantified history’s

long-ships; maundered the brassy oaths

kinked the secret code having kicked

K to reach unity, humped

the edges of citizenship

In this poem, the American state does its “having” “way off the register” (which also refers to the radio), through lynch mobs, the photographs of which bring into documentary time the brutality of slave ships otherwise “quantified” in the blues. (Elshtain knows the blues well, as a verse form and subjective stance.) It’s the contemporary police state that, “having kicked” the Klan in the 60s, now “hump[s] / the edge of citizenship” by stopping, searching, arresting and shooting black men. The poem ends “seriously loco,”

having blazoned culture

in its brag having fattened

on twenty-eight anthems

sung way off and

written, hammered,

codicils to the people’s will.

Note the Objectivist density, reminiscent of Louis Zukofsky’s or Basil Bunting’s verse. Slowly but surely the wave washes back upon itself, “fattened” calves, “anthems / sung way off [key]’ and “codicils to the people’s will” that are not just “written” but “hammered” returns us to the inhuman rhythms of American racism, via its European cousins. Again the swerve away, following aesthetic intuitions, yields the epiphany, the painful “braining” that turns reflection toward glimpse.

Eric Elshtain. This Thin Memory A-Ha. Chicago: Verge Books, 2014.

Kenneth Fearing’s Jocularity (Part I)

One goal of this blog is to make public & hopefully generate some responses to a current research project, a collection of essays about machismo in twentieth-century leftist poetry. In these posts, I will leave key terms (‘machismo’; ‘leftist’) undefined, focusing instead on particular passages of poetry & scholarship. Very briefly, then, my four initial propositions are that:

  • machismo is a script that coordinate affective responses to narrative strategies through the re/fguring & re/positioning of bodies; the script is learned through socialization and enculturation & is constantly re-learned as new events provoke new responses & dominant/subordinate performance modalities slide across each other;
  • in twentieth-century U.S., a macho culture industry organizes and genres of macho affect; these are so entwined with popular genres of narrative–the Western, the Gangster genre, the Detective story, the Swashbuckling Romance, the War story, and so forth–as to be unfeelable without reference to the various narratives, scenarios, idioms and atmospheres;
  • sometimes countercultures and intimate public cultures politicize machismo, either as a bulwark against unwelcome changes in labor & culture or in the interest of finding new ways to be or not be macho; in practice, these movements change some aspects of the macho script while retaining others;
  • poets are, by their labor, highly sensitized to affects and narratives & many poets have written about shifts in macho culture or used machismo to construct a lyric subject; a close reading of key poems may provide insight into the politics of machismo.

Kenneth Fearing was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1902. Basic professional & biographical information is available through The Poetry Foundation website and excerpts from Robert Ryley’s Introduction to The Complete Poems (1994) on the Modern American Poetry webpage.  A few details are worth reviewing..

In 1924, after attending the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin, Feeling moved to New York, where he increasingly found work by writing for the pulp magazines, a thriving industry in the 1920s. According to Ryley, his original specialty was “soft-core pornography” published under the name “Kirk Wolff.” This began his successful career as a writer of genre fiction that culminated in The Big Clock (1946), a noir thriller. Paramount gave the film adaptation a wide release the following year. Nearly all of Fearing’s novels were written using the same modernist formula. A chain of events in the lives of several characters is described by multiple narrators. The effect is a patchwork of partially overlapping perspectives, a kind of narrative cubism. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) is probably Fearing’s prototype. Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950) shares this design, and the “Rashomon effect” describes a plot device in which multiple eye-witness testimonies contradict each other. In Fearing’s novels, the plot usually conforms to the generic conventions of a thriller. a murder has or will be committed, and the protagonist races against a deadline to gather evidence about the crime. In The Dagger of the Mind (1941), the setting is an artist’s colony and the primary narrator, an alcoholic, proto-expressionalist painter, plays both detective & murderer. This is a device similar to one Jim Thompson uses in several thrillers, most notably, The Killer Inside of Me (1952, although Thompson doesn’t employ multiple narrators. In Loneliest Girl in the World (1951), Fearing features a female protagonist & complicates his multiple narrations by having her use a futuristic, computerized recording device that allows her to access multiple conversations & monologues recorded by family members & co-workers.

Before his novels gave his some popular recognition, Fearing’s poetry (beginning with Angel Arms in 1929) garnered praise from more particular audiences. In the 1920s and 1930s he published frequently in leftist journals, such as The Partisan Review and New Masses, and his books were reviewed favorably in such periodicals. By the 1940s he’s become a “darling of the popular front” (Ryley). Clark Gifford’s Body (1942), uses the “Roshomon effect” to narrate a modern version of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. In Fearing’s story, the abolitionists seize several radio stations & broadcast a (somewhat vague) Socialist/Communist message that precipitates a second Civil War. He poetry also earned him considerable praise from significant cultural institutions; he received a Guggenheim, Poetry magazine’s Guarantor’s Prize, and recognition from the National Academy of Arts & Letters.

Fearing’s lifework placed him on a dialogical terrain organized by three audiences. A national public of consumers with a fetish for a particular genre, the thriller. A radicalized public eager for poems that advanced a proletarian/abolitionist view of the world. And a literary public interested in the craftsmanship & originality he brought to the lyric. Fearing developed a macho style that resonated with each of these sometimes overlapping, sometimes disparate publics. A few of Ryley’s observations about Fearing’s childhood help to identify this script. Fearing apparently preferred the company of his father, a successful lawyer who was “often playful” and “surprisingly tolerant” of his son’s “bohemianism.” By contrast, his mother was “almost wholly without humor.” Boyish admiration, jocularity, impish irony, “aww shucks” humor, the impetuosity of spoiled child–all contribute to Fearing’s “hard-boiled” lyricism and feature prominently in his construction of characters, scenes and plots.

“They Liked It,” a poem from Angel Arms (reproduced here from The Collected Poems, p. 73-4), reveals Fearing’s primal montage. In alternating shots, it contrasts a view of Manhattan from the upper floors of an office highrise with conversation bandied between coworkers. The atmosphere is jovial, but tinged with anxiety as the darkness descends.

They watched the lights go on when night fell.

Away below them streets glowed up like topaz necklaces on black silk.

They liked the red eye in the Metropolitan.

And they liked Broadway.

Blake had nothing to do for a while. He talked.

No one in the office paid attention.

“Listen,” he said, “I want advice.

You remember that Swede I was telling about?

I saw her again last night.

I’m going crazy.”

They like the muffled hammer and rasp of the city’s life.

They liked size.

They liked to hear liners in the harbor howl at the sky.

“We went to a flat on Sixty-second.

There were a lot of her friends along, and she took on six of them right under my eyes.

But when I barely touched her she laughed in my face.

‘I’ll take any man in the world,’ she says, ‘but never you.’

I’ve followed her around for two years.

She’s driving me crazy.

What should I do?”

Blake wore checkered socks, carried a cane, had a wife in the Bronx.

No one knew where he lived.

“You lying half-wit,” said one of them, “the last time you told that story the girl was a wop.

Before that she was Irish, and it happened in Brooklyn.

You don’t have to tell us, we know you’re crazy.”

Blake laughed.

They liked to feel the city, away below them, stretch out and breathe.

They liked the Metropolitan’s red eye, and Broadway.

They liked to hear liners on the river baying at the sky.

They liked it all.

Four subjects perform in this momentary drama: a “they” that enjoys watching the city light up at night; Blake, who is not part of the office “in-crowd”; the anonymous, quasi-fictional woman who rejects Blake’s advances; and “one of them,” a hipper colleague, who calls Blake a liar and then commiserates with him. The romantic triad–male rivals, a mysterious, imperious woman–is a convention of the pulp thriller. The anonymity of the coworkers extends into the city they enjoy. “They” are the consumers, a faceless multitude, in love with the city’s entertainments–“topaz necklaces on black silk”–but also its inhumanity–“They like the muffled hammer and rasp of the city’s life. / They liked size. / They liked to hear liners in the harbor howl at the sky.” Sexual banter is another pleasure the city offers, both entertaining & alienating. The poem’s form is precisely calibrated to draw us into the scene; as readers we become the co-workers, consumers of the ordinary spectacle. At first no one listens to Blake, but he keeps talking until they do. The poem uses stanzas to dramatize the accumulation of attention as our gaze of the city is increasingly interrupted. Blake is annoying.

When collective attention finally rests upon Blake, we are given one of the few concrete visual images in the poem: “Blake wore checkered socks, carried a cane, had a wife in the Bronx. / No one knew where he lived.” The specificity tapers off immediately. The poem offers no actual judgment regarding Blake’s appearance; Blake is unremarkable. It’s up to us (the readers, the “they) to interpret his style as evidence for or against his sexual frustration. The aesthetic judgment is a moral judgment. In making the choice to laugh at Blake or not, we, the readers, either align ourselves with the in-crowd, or align ourselves with the self-proclaimed loser.

In any case, Blake is not called out because a coworker has intimate knowledge, but because of inconsistencies in his story: “‘the last time you told that story the girl was a wop. / Before that she was Irish, and it happened in Brooklyn.'” Although the wag depends entirely upon superficial–indeed, interchangeable–details of Blake’s narrative, its these consistent inconsistencies that reveal the truth of Blake’s condition. Blake laughs when his anxiety is partially relieved. On his account, it’s love that’s making him crazy. He’s infatuated with the Swede; she’s an impossible object; he can’t give her up. The co-worker reassures Blake by pointing out the fictional nature of the object. In the macho script, this drama is about the restoration of superficiality. Blake is allowed to return to obscurity; he is brought back into the fold. The object that threatened to materialize is banished back to the zone of anonymous city life. The thing that temporarily inhabited Blake, causing him to complain, returns to Broadway. In this ritual, the jibe is an extension of brotherhood. Competition between dissolves via the expulsion of desire. The “all” in the closing line includes Blake, who was, it turns out, worth a laugh & a poem.

As a literary object, the poem is elegantly crafted. Fearing demonstrates a mastery of the “chops” required for writing free verse in the American idiom. Stanzas construct the drama, the language is idiomatic, the lines balance rhythms and phrasing, not a word is wasted. The modernist sensibility expressed by the form contributes to the political affect the piece conveys. For a poem, its surprisingly coarse. It’s vulgarity resonates with Carl Sandburg’s proletarian city–a husky style, born of the city’s “rasp.” Of course, the poem takes place far above the sprawling dockyards, in an office where bureaucrats enjoy an entirely different pace of labor. In this regard, the poem participates in a mode of muckraking commonly deployed in pulp stories, most notably Dashielle Hammett’s detective fiction. In numerous Continental Op stories and the Thin Man series, Hammett provided a “working class” perspective upon the intimate lives of the leisure class. Like those stories, Fearing’s poem offers working-class readers a view of daily life in the upper offices. But its not likely that the dock workers will encounter Angel Arms–although they may have read Fearing in the pulps. It’s easier to imagine it circulating among a leftist intelligentsia, most of whom work in modern offices, & who could catch a glimpse of themselves in the poem. From this perspective, the poem teases its readers. This jocularity largely defines Fearing’s poetic style.

1.5 x Stein O’Hara

On Wednesday 10 December I joined some other members of the Next Objectivists @ “Lunch Buttons,” a performance event that celebrates the anniversaries of two books of poetry that have been important to me: Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (now 100 years old) and Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems (still fresh at 50). The event, organized by Dan Godston of the Border/Bend Arts Collective, took place @ Beauty and Brawn Art Gallery & Think Space (3501 W. Fullerton Ave). I pieced together passages from several texts by Stein & O’Hara, but not the ones being feted. My recipe called for mixing passages with approximately 1.5 times more Stein than O’Hara. Here are the results:

Through all that surgery I thought

I had a lot to say, and named several last things

Gertrude Stein hadn’t had time for.

–O’Hara, “Memorial Day, 1950”

I. Just So

Now the relation of human nature to the human mind is this.

it isn’t that simple but it’s simple enough

In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is.

the rock is least living of the forms man has fucked

And everybody does say what they do say.

“he isn’t under there, he’s out in the woods”

Any little dog says so.

(from The Geographical History of America, p. 45-55)

(from “Ode on Causality,” Selected Poems, p. 135-6)

II. A Manifesto for Americans

There are so many things to say. But that’s not why you fell in love in the first place, just to hang onto life, so you have to take your chances, and avoid being logical.

If there was no identity no one could be governed, but everybody is governed by everybody. I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anybody writing today, but what difference does that make? Everybody is governed by everybody and that is why they make no master-pieces, and also why governing has nothing to do with master-pieces. Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to. And that is why governing is occupying but not interesting. There’s nothing metaphysical about it. Governments are occupying but not interesting because master-pieces are exactly that they are not.

There is another thing to say.

I think it appears mostly in the minute particulars where decision is necessary. When you are writing before there is an audience anything written is as important as any other thing and you cherish anything and everything that you have written. It dos not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! After the audience begins, naturally they create something. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. That is they create you, and so not everything is so important. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it. Something is more important than another thing, which was not true when you were you that is when you were not you as your little dog knows you.

And so there we are and there is much to say but anyway I do not say that there is no doubt. The recent propagandists for technique on the one hand, and for content on the other, had better watch out. Master-pieces are master-pieces in that way and there are very few of them.

(from “What are Master-Pieces and Why Are there So Few of Them,” in Selections, p. 318)

(from “Personism: A Manifesto,” in Selected Poems, p. xiii-iv)

IX. Any German Girl

any German girl


Bob and Ralph and Don, and there was Brock,

how is faTher and mother moved

what floweRs

bUt they did like him that is to say

he was interesteD in

I rise into the cool Skies

with the simple idenTification

of my collEagues

I do not hear

moNey flutters from the windows

(acrostic from “In Memory of My Feelings,” Selected Poems, p. 105)

(acrostic from Brewsie and Willie, p. 3-6)

IV. Regarding Men, Women & Children

If men have not changed women and children have.

So the rain falls

Geography does not look like it does in relation to the human mind.

tenement of a single heart

Men have not changed women and children have.

it fills it up with dirt

Anybody with a human mind can say I mean and they can say I forgot and mean that.

for Old Romance was draping dolors on a scarlet mound

Men have not changed women and children have changed.

and the corn grows

As I say so tears come into my eyes.

(from The Geographical History of America, p. 45-55)

(from “Ode on Causality,” Selected Poems, p. 135-6)

(from Lucy Church Amiably, p. 177-8)

(from “Cornkind,” Selected Poems, p. 181-2)

V. Regarding Relationships between Men, Women & Children, Part I

When I am. When I am I I am.

I am feeling depressed and anxious. I am sullen when all you. When all you have is to have to do what you do when and if you please as I please you do what you do is take off, your clothes off. And all is wiped away.

Away revealing life’s tenderness.

When all that we are is what we are as I am is what I am when you are what you are, we are flesh. Flesh and breath. When I am feeling and. And when and what. And are. Near us as you are.


As you are I become as I am.


Alive and knowing vaguely.

What is and what is important to me. To me above. Me above me. When I am sullen when you are sullen, our clothes our sullen. And what is important to me. Important that is to say if you please important above the intrusions. When the I of incident and the I of accidental.


Which have nothing to nothing nothing to do with life. With my life.

VI. Any German Girl

any German girl


Bob and Ralph and Don, and there was Brock,

how is faTher and mother moved

what floweRs

bUt they did like him that is to say

he was interesteD in

I rise into the cool Skies

with the simple idenTification

of my collEagues

I do not hear

moNey flutters from the windows

VII. Regarding Relationships between Men, Women & Children, Part II

When I am I am in your presence. I feel life is strong. Life and will. And will will defeat all its enemies and all of mine and all of yours and yours in you and mine in me. All of mine in me and all of yours in your me and all of mine in my your me. Sick logic.

And feeble.

Feeble and.

Feeble reasoning and you are cured by being you.

This is according.

To me this is according by. The perfect symmetry of your arms and legs. I am spread out. I am spread making an eternal circle out of together. Creating.

I am a golden pillar beside.

The Atlantic. The faint line.

I feel I am the faint line of hair dividing I are. Your torso gives my mind rest. And I am when and where. Emotions and emotions. Emotion and emotion released. Mind rest which is the mind at rest and emotions their release into the mind rest. The infinite air where since once.

We are where together you are feeling off. And when and what. Since what. Together we always will. Always will will. In this life. This come what. This is what may.

(Steinian transcription of Poem “À la recharche de Gertrude Stein,” Selected Poems, p. 169.)

VIII. It is Not Mayakovsky’s Birthday Today, but It Could Almost Be

A gun is “Fired.”

One of me Rushes to window #13

And one of me raises his whip

aNd one of me flutters up

masKed in dirt’s lust
if the hOrrible happened

How about it.

Yes but you never can tell in a wAr.

we’re here all Right, you betcha we’re here

And they all will

I think we are all Funny, pretty funny

any anti-fRaternisation ruling

Although the Germans did their best


I Know what I don’t want them to be like,
Open mouths gasping

the lungs of eartH

my trAnsparencies could not resist the race!

TerroR in earth,

pink feAthers
like a Gondola

through the strEets

seveRal likenesses, like stars and years,

My quieTness has a number

pistols I have boRrowed to protect myselves

mUrder in their heart!

in the Desert

LiSten, said Brewsie, listen to me.

I wanT to know

as shE is

whIch she does

a maN-eating dog.

(acrostic from “In Memory of My Feelings,” Selected Poems, p. 105)

(acrostic from Brewsie and Willie, p. 3-6)


That is what I mean to be I mean to be the one who can and does have as ordinary ideas as these.

as maps change & faces become vacant

Extraordinary ideas are just as ordinary as ordinary ideas because if you please everybody has to have or have had extraordinary ideas.

the ugliness we seek in vain

What is the use of being a little boy if you are to grow up to be a man.

(from The Geographical History of America, p. 45-55)

(from “Ode on Causality,” Selected Poems, p. 135-6)