Tuesday, November 23, 2004

 
Here's the first Tate poem I thought of when I thought of the way the dichotomy easy/noteasy is a rule of thumb and not the (only) path to poetry enlightenment.

Goodtime Jesus
by James Tate

Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dream-
ing so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it?
A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled
back, skin falling off. But he wasn't afraid of that. It was a beau-
tiful day. How 'bout some coffee? Don't mind if I do. Take a little
ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.


This was the Tate poem I first heard, in 1997, by memory from the tongue of one M. Nichole Hefner, which made me say, hmmmm. Up till then, I was willing to dismiss Tate as a buffoon, or a goon, or a whatever just don't bother me. The poem gave me pause, though I had no idea, really, why. I didn't have the intellectual framework to discursively discuss what its impact was. Now I do, and, warning, I'm going to, a little.

Ok, scene, after the temptation of Christ in the desert. Such a momentous event, marked temporally by a slightly later rising, very Miltonic (drama is all inside, severe Protestant sense of representation &c.) Its effect, is an emptying--the worst of nightmares, hell, passes like a dream, and he is not scared even as much as you or I are following those phenomenon (nightmares, I mean). This is perfect holiness, shifting to a Taoist sense of holiness for variety (I could discuss Milton's regard for "those who only stand and wait," as well), where a nonchalant evenness reaching back through one's history without fear, illusion, or fear of illusion, to actual perception of the natural goodness, is the ideal. Hell is, there, not real beyond a manifestation of one's own fears. Blake might agree with this too. Lots of mystics would, I bet.

Then the American inflection (via Tom Mix) of breaking beautiful as Tate does is perfect. Talking to himself like very very happy people do, very human. Simple pleasure of the donkey. And then the killer last sentence, Hell, I love everybody.

This touches on where I think I'm going with my Milton paper, to the way there is an ambiguity in the way Satan and all of hell's portrayals mockingly send up heaven and Eden. The way, for example, Satan rigs his decision to go hunt through Hell then Chaos to scout out Eden and see what bad he can do, is a hollow pantomime of when God convenes Heaven to see who will sacrifice himself to save humankind and Christ volunteers. Often, the devils are portrayed as being humorous in their actions, laughable in the eye of god. Because the only people they are fooling in their mockery is themselves (like when Mammon can't tell the difference between the palace he erects from Heaven, because he fashions his out of gold and gems too, just like Heaven is, as if that were other than the facade of heaven), there is an element of humor to it. This is comic. But the same thing which was comic becomes tragic when it takes in Adam and Eve, and eventually their ancestors (us). So the valence involves the perceiver. This is obviously indebted greatly to Fish.

Does that follow? I know it's pretty garbled, I apologize, it is just solidifying and I haven't really sat down to work it out on paper yet with quotes and all. But my point now is that this sense of the comic v. the tragic being not essentially different except for how you take it is at the heart of this poem. In the face of Hell, the worst Satan has to offer, the fact of death, Jesus takes a little ride on his donkey. The little pleasures, cowboy style, pricking out the essentially Protestant nature of America with a nice light touch. The last sentence does it so perfectly, too: Hell offers not the smallest swerve to his good nature. He preserves the unfallen stance whereby the hell which people make of their consciousnesses is funny, like someone pushing a spoon up their nose and not thinking they can stop is funny. Just stop with the spoon, if you want to! Or don't, it's your spoon. The comic and the tragic are in this sense like a staircase; if you're going up, the staircase goes up; if you're going down, the staircase goes down.

So I didn't have the slightest sense of what Milton brought to the comic and tragic modes, I had no idea beyond the broadest sense of what this poem was about--I didn't even know Christ was tempted in the desert, for example. But I did like it (I also trusted Nichole's taste, which helped me be open to the poem). It is a good poem. Tate accomplished a fair bit in a few lines. Is it a difficult poem? No. Is it a wise poem? Yes. Is it the self-equivalent of braying only "Support the troops!"? No, god no. And saying so is, forgive me, asinine.

So my convoluted and unfortunately longwinded and difficult (or just inane) way of saying requiring poetry to be difficult before you accept it as good poetry, and segregating all non-resistive poetry as pandering poetry, is a sure way to miss lots of what's good about poetry. And I would be remiss, as part of this community, to not say so.

Protective caveat: I want to make clear, by the way, I'm a big fan of difficult poetry. Love difficulty, and understand the reasons for it. For the different kinds of difficulty, too (Which different uses are as important as the concept itself of 'difficult', which idea is part of Okokdomodomo's long meditation, here.).

Comments:
I know what you're saying. I don't think it's a question of easy/difficult. And maybe Tate's not the best example. I do prefer other writers to Tate (and to Ashbery, too, for similar reasons), but I feel like the argument is a tough one because, for me, Tate skirts a line that puts him perhaps a bit closer to the school to which purportedly Josh Corey belongs.

It's tricky, isn't it? In my MFA program, I'm just beginning to try to confront schools of thought like Mike's. He's way more open-minded than a couple of teachers we have, too. So it's interesting.

Maybe having a background in a traditional poetry program will help prepare me to "branch out" without "alienating" too much.

But for now, the branch needs to grow. And the idea of "audience" needs to die. At least for me.
 
Laura,

Who teaches in your MFA program? I'm altogether unfamiliar. & Tate's not my uber-fave either, nor is he the best example for what Josh was saying, I agree. But he does stand on his own, in his own lights, I think.

&: Maybe it's not a matter of audience/no-audience, but of which audience? Though you know what you need better than anyone, so.
 
Stuart,
I really liked what you were saying about experiences being like a staircase, that the direction they go is contingent upon your own direction. This seems to me like a classic Fish sentence expressing subjectivity. However, the discussion of Milton makes me want to draw this idea out beyond the text into your own reading of it. Are the demons really comic, or are they not tragic in their folly? Also, in reading the Tate poem as comic, which it certainly is, can one not read the same poem also as being tragic - in that we are incapable of that same stead-fastness, that same assurance?
I have always enjoyed the quote by Horace Walpole, "To a thinking man, the world is comic. To the man who feels, it is tragic." The dialectic between mind and body is obviously paramount to this, but it suggests that only those entrenched in the visceral can intellectualize the world as tragic, as if the preoccupation with emotion prevents seeing the world as comic - in the traditional Greek sense, which would allow that the world will continue in abundance.
So, I suppose, in applying this to the Tate poem (as well as your reading of it) that one might argue there exists a type of numbness to humanity's tribulations: a focus on "things yonder" as opposed to "things here." It would follow then, that to allow one's self to go up the staircase that one would have to believe there is some abstract form at the top. Ultimately, I suppose, this leads to the question of whether one can be both humanist and religiously focused at the same time without running into his doppelganger coming from the other direction on the staircase. And what is that place where the two collide?
I'm sorry if this has been a bit incoherent. I'm sort of processing the thoughts as I go. Happy Thanksgiving. -Ryan
 
I'm at Georgia State---which is a pretty traditional program. The head honcho of the program is somewhat of a new formalist---he tends to discredit, say, Whitman, for not being formal enough. It's pretty uninspiring. But we have a couple of profs who do better. We also have a pretty flexible student body & an eclectic group of students, so I can't complain too much. But I get a bit frustrated at times.
 
Stuart,
I really liked what you were saying about experiences being like a staircase, that the direction they go is contingent upon your own direction. This seems to me like a classic Fish sentence expressing subjectivity. However, the discussion of Milton makes me want to draw this idea out beyond the text into your own reading of it. Are the demons really comic, or are they not tragic in their folly? Also, in reading the Tate poem as comic, which it certainly is, can one not read the same poem also as being tragic - in that we are incapable of that same stead-fastness, that same assurance?
I have always enjoyed the quote by Horace Walpole, "To a thinking man, the world is comic. To the man who feels, it is tragic." The dialectic between mind and body is obviously paramount to this, but it suggests that only those entrenched in the visceral can intellectualize the world as tragic, as if the preoccupation with emotion prevents seeing the world as comic - in the traditional Greek sense, which would allow that the world will continue in abundance.
So, I suppose, in applying this to the Tate poem (as well as your reading of it) that one might argue there exists a type of numbness to humanity's tribulations: a focus on "things yonder" as opposed to "things here." It would follow then, that to allow one's self to go up the staircase that one would have to believe there is some abstract form at the top. Ultimately, I suppose, this leads to the question of whether one can be both humanist and religiously focused at the same time without running into his doppelganger coming from the other direction on the staircase. And what is that place where the two collide?
I'm sorry if this has been a bit incoherent. I'm sort of processing the thoughts as I go. Happy Thanksgiving. -Ryan

Ryan,

Good questions. I'll do my best to answer with my dim understanding of what I mean.

When I say comic, I mean it in the classical sense, in the way Dante used it; a comic vision is one where the universe as a whole makes sense, and things come to their natural conclusion. Tragedy is where things fall apart, where a push for wholeness of self, or knowledge, of fate, leads to dissolution and further lacunae, of sorrow. I haven't read Aristotle in ages, but isn't that how he separates the categories? So in Milton, say,I'm saying he's taking this dichotomy and applying a Puritan pressure to an underlying assertion; that things are one way or another, and revealing what was always latent in the presentation of that assertion, that things can be one way or another based on how they are perceived. He is taking the responsibility for the either/or of that perception away from the presenter (i.e. it is clear that "Much Ado About Nothing" is a comedy, the conventions show it so, and likewise that "Macbeth" is a tragedy, it fits clear convention) and places it on the perceiver. So obviously, this would be nothing more than a footnote in a Fish chapter, but it is what I was getting at before. Moloch boasts of his prowess on the battlefield, and then later it is described how he ran like a coward. The difference is funny, between his self-presentation and his self-action. He is a coward who likes to feel powerful, and will do so post-fall, we know, by the terms of his worship as a false god upon earth; he will demand child sacrifice. Is anything weaker than a baby? That level of powerlessness is how weak he is. That would be funny if it weren't tragic that the childrens' parents were convinced that they must sacrifice their children to him.

Now the perspectival thing: these Canaanites, who will worship Moloch, allow the appearance Moloch puts forth to become their reality. It is not reality. The reality of what he puts forth is funny, in the sense that it is absurd. The proper response is as Christ's in Paradise Regained, to give not an ounce of credence ever to appearance over reality, the true reality of (as Fish repeatedly returns to) "more hungeringto do my Father's will."

Does that help a little for the first point? As for the Tate poem as tragic, I don't think that the tone supports that (but that is just opinion), because the Americanisms are very accessible to us all. There is no sense that this Christ is anything more than an extremely ordinary guy. Extremely simple, in the Eastern Taoist sense, and within that framework passing through the fire of hell without discomfort is well within human capability, because from there, hell is only a construct of the human mind.

As far as the numbness to humanity's tribulations, I understand that, and I am trying to tease out here the poem's intentions, not necessarily mine, but I'd say that in general when someone is hurting themselves because they believe it is benificial to their being, the best thing to do is not treat it as anything other than ridiculous.

And I wouldn't make to much of the staircase, myself.

Hope I was slightly coherent in response, thanks for the questions,

Stuart
 
oops, I had cut-and-pasted your response, Ryan, for reference when responding, then forgot to delete it before posting. I have some of my own words buried under the repost of yours.

Laura,

Oh--for some reason I thought you were at U. of Georgia, which program has a decidedly different cast than GSU, I guess. Doesn't seem to be hurting your poetry any.
 
Stuart,
Your argument was certainly anything but incoherent. I definitely understand your point of view. I suppose what I was getting at is the necessity of comedy and tragedy being intertwined. For instance, in watching Much Ado About Nothing, the audience, on one level, immediately understands this was intended to be comedy. It has the all the trimmings of comedy. However, my argument is that one can view this, outside of intention, as being tragic: for the audience, the world doesn't make sense, doesn't tie into a ribbon at the end.
On the other hand, it seems that pleasure and joy are very much a part of the catharsis in watching a tragedy. We walk away thankful that Hamlet's is not our life, walk away carrying the feeling that things, much like the traditional definition of comedy, make comparative sense and that they could be much worse.
Of course, I understand that Tate's poem is comedic in intention, and that it should for all practical purposes be read as such, but doesn't it strike you as tragic that we, as readers, can not shake off hell and go ride our donkeys?
Finally, I suppose my comments were directed toward the idea that, taken out of typical cultural associative context, comedy might be perceived as tragic and vice versa. And this leads me into the question of one of those ancient paradoxes predicated upon dialectic: that the two opposites conjoin at some point. Is this point in the intellectual or emotional part of the brain? I'm unsure. Nevertheless, thanks for the thought provocation.

Laura,
Thank you for the kind words about my poetry. Currently, I am not at UGA. I graduated with my B.A. last May, and I'm teaching high school in Albany at the present. I will be applying for graduate school, well, in the next week or two.

Best to you both. I hope your Thanksgivings were wonderful. -Ryan
 
Wow! I was apparently totally confused about the exchange here. I just thought comments were directed to me from Laura that were in fact from Stuart to Laura. Yikes! Anyway, I'm a bit hungover. Sorry. -Ryan
 
Ryan,

Well, I know I may sound weird for saying so, but I do think we can "shake off hell and go ride our donkeys." Not that it doesn't take a lot of work and self-love and selfless love, but I do. A pity so many people don't, is all I have to say, and I mean that whether the possibility is even a true one or not. But my own personal feelings on the matter aside (not that they don't touch on the following viewpoint, but that is unavoidable), you're right about "Much Ado" having a problematic feel for comedy, Shakespeare's difficulty with the genre is notable (I mean, have you read the 'problem' plays?), and there is a real ambivalence there. But this poem of Tate's models, I think, the comedic possibility of Jesus pretty clearly. A viewer could bring anything they want to any text, and if you wanted to find the most recent episode of "Powerpuff Girls" existentially meaningful in a profoundly tragic manner you no doubt could, that's intelligence & feeling, but taken on its own terms I really do think this poem has little of the ambivalence you note in the Shakespeare experience.

As for where the tragic/comic intersect, I'd say the intersection is prior to the reader's experience--it's in the text. The bifurcation is within the reader's eye (and now, that's Emerson, roundabout) more or less; in any case, it occurs within the reader themselves.

Have a great holiday yourself, and good luck on grad. school. Thanks for the interchange, enjoyable, and also fruitful for me as I try to figure out my paper topic.
 
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