Testing. Testing. Is this thing on? Attention.
Your attention, please. Is anyone even out there?
WILLIAM: Good opening.
SCOTT: Maybe set “Is anyone…” off by itself to better segue.
But what does it matter? We always find
ourselves to be our most sympathetic audience.
Lend me your ears, if you can spare them,
but I’ll probably continue talking regardless—
A major difficulty, this lack of regard since,
unfortunately, you can’t pay just enough
attention to recognize that moment when you’ve ceased
WILLIAM: Is that a typo on the second line? “We’re” instead of “we”? By the end of the stanza I feel insulted, because I’m trying to pay attention and am being insulted for not paying attention, which leaves me ambivalent about continuing the poem. Are you allergic to one-syllable words? Did you repeat the word “regard” as “regardless” intentionally?
SCOTT: I take the insult here to be part of the game in which the poem is enlisting us, and am not offended by it. Ditto Wm., I think “lack of regard” is a clumsy awkward phrase after regardless.
DIRK: Here’s the problem. The version of “Attention” you’re responding to is way out of date. I have no idea when I gave William the copy of the poem he’s reading, but when I compare the opening as it appears above with the opening of the version of “Attention” I’ve just printed from my files, there are huge differences. Meaning: the objections William raises about this poem may well be deserved by the draft he had available to him, but there could be some question as to whether his concerns would still apply to the much-revised text I have established as the (provisional, always provisional) final text. So, how to respond. Often, I don’t disagree with the condemnations that follow, but they are also no longer relevant given that no future version of this poem released to the public would contain the objectionable sections. But yes, there is an element of in-your-face-preaching in the poem, which may come off as insulting. I feel simultaneously ashamed and defiant about the evidence of such an attitude in this poem. Am I allergic to one-syllable words? You’ve heard me speak, William, what do you think? Probably, yes. Did I repeat the word “regard” and “regardless” intentionally? Absolutely, yes (though again, this section has been deleted from the most recent incarnation of this failed poem). The repetition was an obviously inadequate attempt at self-reflexive irony and transition, in which the empty, almost clichéd “regardless” is taken seriously and there is an effort to indict a general “lack of regard” that, as Scott points out, is supposed to ‘enlist’ the reading audience, making them ‘in-the-know’ co-conspirators with the author, to form a self-congratulatory cell of like-minded folk who have a similar skeptical world-view. Given that William feels insulted by these lines, it is apparent that for one reader, at least, my message failed to transcend its heavy veil of irony and therefore it is fortunate that future readers will not be exposed to the disrespectful assertion attributed to them without their consent.
paying attention, our observations skewed
by the fogged tendency to embrace complacency:
we establish rules for living, then promptly
file them on the dark side of the brain.
Later, bushwhacking through our synapses,
we stumble over them, our pith helmets slip,
and we’re puzzled to find evidence of prior
WILLIAM: An enjambed stanza break can be cool, but not when I’m trying to hard to translate the diction into something simpler while being accused of not paying attention. It is starting to get good when the pith helmet slips, as long as I believe the poet is writing about himself and not telling me how I think and be. The enjambed stanza break is more welcome if employed consistently throughout, although the sense of a run-on sentence is inescapable. Are you allergic to five-word sentences? I come from the Orwell and Strunk and White school myself: “Write with nouns and verbs.” This metaphor would work better if, at the moment when the poet stumbles over her (not my) previous states of being, it was established that those states were lichen-encrusted tablets (stone tablets not pills). Otherwise I need to back up to tie together the tablets and the poet with the pith helmet. It is worth pointing out that these tablets started out as folders—“filed” on the dark side of the brain. I like the dark side of the brain image, you could work that image a lot more.
SCOTT: I notice we switch from I/you to we. I’m not sure if it bugs me, but it’s the type thing I notice. I’m not a poet, that’s all. But maybe there’s a better way to hook the metaphor from filing in the brain to sending an explorer bushwhacking. Some linking image. So far I don’t have problems with the enjambment.
DIRK: I agree with William’s reservations about the use of the third person pronoun: it is rather presumptuous of me (or the poet, or the speaker, or whatever your poison) to prescribe the actions of people I’ve never met, much less those I have met. The “we” here is, admittedly, a cowardly substitute for “I”—meaning the author. I find it difficult to write poems that use the pronoun “I” because I want to believe that something can be written that extends beyond the personal. Still, using “we” is a cheap way out. As far as the enjambed stanza: originally, “Attention” had no stanza breaks but was a continual column of complaint. First readers of the poem (which included Scott) made clear their discomfort with the unbroken slab of poetry. Compliantly, I introduced stanza-breaks. Addicted to numerically identical stanza-lengths, I tried out several different line-counts, 11 lines per stanza, 9 lines per stanza, 7 lines per stanza, etc. etc. I’m not sure what length the stanzas are in the version available to William, but regardless of the version, there are times when the stanza breaks cannot be readily defended syntactically or otherwise. “Allergic to five-word sentences? Orwell and Strunk and White school?” Forgive me, but what do rules for prose have to do with poetry? My poetry may fail by any test you decide to give it, but please, don’t judge me by prose standards, Pound’s dictum that ‘poetry must be as well-written as prose’ notwithstanding. Whether a wise thing to do not, surely it must be clear, William, that I don’t normally even speak according to the directives of your blessed Trinity. Why should my poetry, the supposed repository of “speech”—according to a popular contemporary dogmatic position concerning the source of poetry—then, reproduce a discourse, a speech, that is not naturally mine? I know, no discourse is ‘naturally’ mine. Still. My position is this: all writing reproduces, however badly or inadequately, records of consciousness. My consciousness produces the sometimes clotted monsters of syntax on display in this poem. It may not be enjoyable (in fact, I’ve wondered whether I would read the stuff I write if I weren’t the author). It may not make sense. It may represent a failure to communicate. But even so, is our final standard going to be an author who is recorded to have given the following advice: “Omit needless words. Omit needless words. Omit needless words.” apparently unaware that the last six words of this rule would be unnecessary if the author took his own rule seriously?
states of being—alien now for want of practice—
but familiar enough to warrant some
sign of allegiance, if only a salute to acknowledge
our failures. So we scrape the lichens off
the worn tablets and resolve to rededicate
ourselves to these timeless precepts, to return
to our earlier wisdom, to remember to not forget again
SCOTT: The first line of this stanza troubles me because it is unclear what is alien now. From alien to failures, I’m lost. Maybe lose that stuff. Maybe the guy rooting around in our brain with the pith helmet finds the tablet, keeping the metaphor rooted rather than abstract.
that crucial rule: there’s only one now—but
is there anything more tenuous than the present?
Where to stand when the past appears before you
know it, belching and hungry, while the galloping
future branches faster than your mind can map.
Just when do we stop understanding the stories
of those that preceded us, forget Santayana’s warning
WILLIAM: This stanza I get very lost. The folders that became tablets have either become monsters, horses, or roads. I don’t know who Santayana is. Santana was a rock band in the 1970s. The trouble here is that you don’t make me care who Santayana is. Why don’t you tell me what his warning is instead of sending me to the library in the middle of a poem that already threatens to send me to my dictionary.
SCOTT: About Santayana, better to steal his idea than mention his name, Wm.’s dead on there. That says to the reader if you don’t know “Santayana’s warning” you are one dumb fuck who shouldn’t be reading this poem. That’s the kind of insular bullshit that I know you’re trying to scrape out of your poetry, I know that. Let some other poet imitate T.S. Eliot. You’re a better writer than that. I don’t like the galloping future either. I like the first two lines, and want to see a better metaphor for the tenuous present.
DIRK: So, if I had written, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” neither of you would have objected to the inclusion of this commonplace (and don’t tell me you’ve never encountered this quotation or a variation of it)? I think this is truly the only place where I really get irritated by your guys’critique of my poem. William, would you stand in front of a convention of OuLiPo writers and counsel them to adhere to the rules of Strunk and White and to forsake any allusions, whether of content or form, to that which might not be readily recognizable by whatever audience you imagine awaits them? And you, Scott, guilty of numerous postmodern exercises in fiction and criticism, are you suggesting that if you and William can’t identify Santayana or the quotation I allude to, that such allusion is therefore illegitimate, something a “better writer“ would avoid? While it is completely possible that this instance of indirect quotation flops miserably, your objections are to the practice in general, not the specific example. And if either of you persist in defending this territory, prepare yourself for a barrage of like examples from your works that violate the tenants of universal accessibility you so valiantly champion here.
about forgetting? How droll we can be, safely
lodged in the present, judging the past
as though our arrogance makes us immune
to similar futures. We’re so damned smart
until our ignorance finally collapses
of its own weight to reveal what should have been
clear all along: our capacity for fairy tales remains
WILLIAM: “droll” is British, I speak American. I’ve never met a droll person—not even in English Studies. Again I assume that by “we” the poet means “I,” otherwise I get frustrated at being psychoanalyzed. You need a single coherent metaphor for past and future—there’s a list of them in The Unknown (time.htm?). “Our” arrogance, again, I read as “my” (your) arrogance. That’s the Royal “we,” but, again, I’m American and I don’t live in a monarchy, I live in a fascist capitalist democracy. Oh man, another metaphor: ignorance collapsing. Is ignorance a bridge? A building? A dinosaur? There’s some pretty good writing about ignorance in The Unknown: unknown.htm.
SCOTT: Here again, ditto William, I’d like to see a metaphor. I like it from “We’re so damned smart” to the end, but the start of the stanza is in that up-off accessible zone.
DIRK: Yes, William, mea culpa, mea culpa: the “we” should be “I.” But that “I” happens to use the word “droll” even though that “I” is also an American. “I” didn’t realize that “I” was forbidden to use British English words. Please send me a list of every word you, an American, use so that “I” won’t ever again put in a word you don’t use in a poem.
uncharted, an immense analgesic sea cultivated
by that insufferable blacksmith, the ego. Be prepared:
soon you’ll have a wolf howling at the door bitching
about Red Riding Hood’s dreadful aftertaste. Adam and Eve’s
complaint, too, no doubt. And that’s the problem
with paradise—well, actually, paradise has a boatload
of problems, but the biggest is the assumption
WILLIAM: I have become quite lost. Whatever ignorance is, it has weight, and it was concealing something, and it crumbled, and suddenly I can see what was behind it: a capacity for fairy tales, which is uncharted like a topography, no no, a sea, a sea of medicine (I don’t know exactly what “analgesic” means) but it’s a sea that was cultivated, which means it’s an uncharted aquatic agricultural field being plowed by a blacksmith who is actually the (read: “the poet’s”) ego. Who is a blacksmith and a farmer of aquatic medicine, and our heavy ignorance was preventing us from seeing this. And now come the fairy tale and Biblical references. Then paradise, and I don’t know how we got to paradise, maybe we followed the galloping future down the road a few stanzas (actually, just one stanza) back. But paradise has a boatload of problems, so maybe paradise is also aquatic just like our capacity for fairy tales.
SCOTT: See here’s where I really start to like the poem, though A&E invocations are always irritating. How about some different examples and I think bitching about should be complaining of, kill the A&E line and replace with some other paradise metaphor?
DIRK: By this point, I’m getting the sense that I am in danger of becoming hyper-defensive of a poem that I, myself, have already consigned to the junkheap of history. Suffice it to say: the prohibition against mixed metaphors often seems to me to be disconnected from the actual operations of the mind. Again, with a bow and a scrape to William’s objections, this poem can only truly record the experiences of “the poet” and therefore any suggestion that anyone else has similar experiences is out of bounds. So scrap any stab at universality: at times, I leap from aspirin to paradise. I guess it was wrong of me to admit that, no matter how desperately I tried to hide what I had done.
there are none: mistakes become invisible:
the elephant in the living room; Captain Cook’s
three-master, anchored in plain sight but still
unseen by canoed Tahitian eyes. Look,
attention doesn’t guarantee happiness—syphilis
sometimes serpents its way into the garden—
but options are in short supply. Inside the opened
WILLIAM: Here is the punctuation, including line breaks, of this enjambed sentence: linebreak m-dash comma comma linebreak comma linebreak colon colon linebreak semicolon linebreak comma linebreak period. Do you have students who write like this? Aren’t you glad they don’t use linebreaks? If, as Levertov declares, a linebreak is a half comma, then you have a total of 9 commas, 2 colons (two colons?) an m-dash and a semicolon. Help me out here: go pull In Cold Jest off the shelf and find a sentence like this. I’ll be right back after I go down to the library to look up the Bible, Little Red Riding Hood, and Captain Cook, so that I can better understand how we arrived in Tahiti. And is Tahiti paradise? Or are we in the next metaphor? Who the fuck is Captain Cook anyway? Are we talking Crusoe? Peter Pan? Christ, I gotta go get a Ph.D. or read more Todorov. Syphilis is a beautiful word. Serpents? (here being used as a verb) Garden? Are we back in Eden? I thought we were in Tahiti!
SCOTT: Why don’t you get us into paradise some other route than Adam & Eve, and then more easily get away with the Edenic ref. in this stanza. Two Edenic refs. are at least one too many. I like Captain Cook. I think the metaphor is stated enough that it’s not obscure.
DIRK: Do I have students who write like this? Composition students or poetry-writing students? Again with the invidious comparisons to prose! The poetic principle being applied here, though once more, obviously ineffectively, is compression. As to William’s need for a visit to the library: please tell me, what poems have you been reading lately that contain nothing you don’t already understand? Isn’t that boring for you? Truly, I’m confused, based on the work I’ve seen you write: what do you see as the author’s responsibility to the audience? To be readily intelligible is not a requirement I would have expected to find on William’s literary legislative docket.
And as far as Levertov is concerned: I have been at war with her concept of the line for years, so invoking her does not make me feel repentant in the least. Besides, I find it slightly ironic, this recourse to the authority of a transplanted British author to defend some amorphous concept of “American” English and its deployment in poetry.
bottle, the genie spits in disgust: No, you can’t
put the cork back in; I’m with you eternally,
you twits. So our wounds swim in the salt of knowing—
the only cure: forgetting everything.… An affectation
this frequent use of “we,” a clumsy way to divert
attention: just how much “wholly insignificant”
grousing lies beneath this “rhythmical grumbling”—?
WILLIAM: The genie speaks American, or is “twits” British, too? Let’s just forget everything that’s happened in the poem so far so that, with a fresh mind, we can better understand the latest metaphor. I’m going to go have a toke in fact, before I continue, so that I might calm down and forget everything that’s happened so far. I’m halfway through the poem. I’ve been working on it for 45 minutes. Ah.
Where were we? Ah, yes. Wounds swim in salt of knowing. Wounds are fish, salt is water, and water is knowledge; all of which is a cure. A cure for what, Dirk? Don’t know, but the cure which is the wounds is also forgetting everything. Forgetting everything? Literally? Wow. That would render a person a vegetable wouldn’t it? Ellipsis: good move, man. Ah ha, now the poet is addressing his tendency to overuse the first person plural. I don’t know why you put quotes around “wholly insignificant” or “rhythmical grumbling.” Was that something that Santayana wrote? Or something the poet wrote, since the poet is clearly writing about herself, while trying to pin herself on the reader through misuse of plural pronouns? Oh, what a relief: an end-stopped stanza break. Our first. It was the real end of the sentence too. This is welcome. A chance for the reader to breathe. Onward, then:
SCOTT: I think this stanza works real well up until the only cure. I want some more on how to forget everything, and I don’t want it stated quite so bluntly. And yeah, the whacking off of method don’t need to be there. Actually, btw, I think Peter Pan would go good in this poem. Also I think you mean that the salt of knowing swims in our wounds, not the other way round.
But I’ve given it all away, haven’t I? Another one
of our charming traits: betrayal. Though we betray
others generously, and often with true regret,
we save most of our betrayals for ourselves;
for who knows better how to hurt us?
After the wounds begin shriveling into pus and crust,
we attempt to redeem the scars with art, to advertise
WILLIAM: Look, man, I’m getting really mad. Here I am trying to wade through your poem and now you’re calling “betrayal” one of my traits! Are you just writing that to get back at the reader for not finishing the poem? Betraying you. Hey, I like the part about hurting yourself. For a second I thought that I could relate to what you were writing. But now you’re writing about yourself again. Art does not advertise: advertisements advertise.
SCOTT: All art advertises, elicits you to “buy” itself to the degree that you will participate in it by thinking about it. Your art, William, is often an advertisement for your ideology. As bald-faced an advertisement as the one which adorns a box of Cheer. Or an advertisement for structure. And this art is an advertisement for attention. Aren’t both art and advertising subsets of ideology? But I think the transition from pus and crust to redemption is weak, Dirk, you could bounce off “we hurt ourselves better than anyone else possibly could” way better than you do, by extending one of your metaphors. Talk about how the wounds get there maybe.
DIRK: I’m getting weary. And William, I’m confused. First, you’re pissed when the first person plural is used to disguise the first person singular, and then, when the first person singular appears in the poem you’re pissed because I’m “writing about yourself [i.e. myself] again.” Who am I supposed to write about if I can’t write about me and I can’t write about “we?” And no, I’m not accusing the reader of betraying me: I’m saying that we all betray ourselves, in some way, at some time. Perhaps I’m wrong and you, and some other people, have never betrayed yourselves. If so, my apologies. Here, let me rewrite the lines: “Though I betray / others generously, and often with true regret, / I save most of my betrayals for myself; / for who knows better how to hurt me?” And, thank you, Scott, for stating the obvious: art advertises, or at least some does. This poem, for instance, though apparently, according to William, that’s bad. Good thing I asked him whether it was worthy of being included in The Unknown?
the result of our inattention. After rounding up
the usual suspects, we invariably pull passion out
of the line-up. Like paradise, passion depends on the myth
of purity to break down the bridge between
intention and action, to deny the need for bandages.
We like to say passion consumes us, but really we consume it,
greedily, grateful that we can pretend it absolves us
WILLIAM: I really like the image of pulling passion out of the police line-up. I think that’s great. You’re writing about the police—a vital instrument of control in our fascist capitalist democratic state, who lock up the poor, marginalized, and economically unnecessary through a battery of draconian drug laws and a fraudulent drug war—instead of about how you wound yourself and then offer up your scabs and pus as poetry and blame it on the reader, who has actually been very patient with you so far. You should write more about the police. Yes. Things are really getting good. I’m afraid, in fact, to continue reading. I’m afraid you’re going to start writing about paradise again—is it Eden or Tahiti? Where is Tahiti anyway? Are there Nike factories there? What are their drug laws like? Oh God, alliteration. Dirk, I’ve got a real thing about alliteration. I swear it’s the only formal device I don’t like, except for maybe puns. Paradise Passion Purity. Not a single concrete concept to be found in this alliteration. How about Pus? I’ve seen Pus. Look, man, how is passion using a myth of purity to break a bridge between intention and inaction? The only word I understand is bridge. I have been on bridges. This bridge is a bridge that, before it was broken, was used to transport bandages to Tahiti, to provide analgesics for the exploited factory workers and poets in prison for smoking marijuana. Passion and us (“me”) consume each other. I guess this is like two snakes eating each other’s tails. And in the same sentence it absolves us of responsibility for all the people in Tahiti suffering to support the American economy which gives generous loans to poetry students so that they can isolate themselves from the hardships of the world and read Santayana instead of the newspaper.
SCOTT: Wm.—That’s mean. Don’t ask Dirk to be you or write what you write. That’s your job. Dirk’s job is to write what he writes. I like this stanza, and I think that much of what the poem does is flood the world with metaphors, so I’m not opposed to mixing them.
of responsibility. Somewhere, inside our bone-bound,
buzzing grey hives, consciousness lurks, a sad
throneless queen forever appraising us of the notion
of its absolute sovereignty over its solitary subject.
But there’s so much competition: everyone wants
our attention and the numbing clamor of commerce only
encourages the increasing remoteness with which we attend
WILLIAM: Bone-bound. I guess this hive is actually a brain. “Our” brain. Consciousness is a throneless queen. If I thought you limited yourself to one metaphor per sentence, then I could safely assume that consciousness is the queen bee inside the beehive of the brain, which would be interesting, since a beehive is a highly structured metaphoric source domain and is likely to generate some really new ideas about cognition, if the poet does some research on basic entomology (the study of insects, not to be confused with etymology, the study of the origins of words) but I have no reason to trust the poet at this point. Because a queen bee has more than one subject: a whole buzzing hive of them in fact. Workers, drones, larvae. It’s fascinating stuff. Clamor. Competition. Commerce. You are again, almost alluding to things that matter in the world—things that directly affect the starving people in Tahiti, which is a paradise, but only for the tourists.
SCOTT: I think you should have some other metaphor for what commerce does to us than sound. But I like the buzzing grey hives.
to those caresses so infinitely gentle that the skin
strains to verify the spot the fingers have touched—
WILLIAM: There’s a pretty good move: act like you’re about to write about economics, and then all of a sudden write about sex instead. Then shut down the poem in a hurry so that the reader can think about sex instead of the police, and feel relieved. Sex with another human. For the first time in the poem you are not writing about masturbating.
DIRK: Any more response would make me appear merely peevish. In your original email, William, not this edited version Scott has derived from your longer response, you answered the question I asked that started your painful struggle through my work (“Is it [“Attention”] the huge pompous bloated mass of pontificatory wheezing I think it is?”) by writing: “Okay Dirk you asked for it. The answer is ‘yes.’” I agree, but I disagree with some of the means by which you reached that conclusion. Am I allowed that stance?
SCOTT: Nice ending. So that’s what an envoy is? An ending? I learn something new from you guys every day.