Mute (from Silent Noise)

Hi! I’m excited to share this chapter from my published book Silent Noise, called Mute. Silent Noise is a tour through poetry and the ideas of poetry, starting from Ancient Greece with Plato’s theory of Mimesis, and moving all the way to the New York School in the 1950’s and beyond. If you like what you read, you can find more information about the book and where to get it here: http://www.amazon.com/Silent-Noise-Phoenix/dp/1502963450/ref=la_B00QEL41LS_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1433799378&sr=1-2

The lack of quotation marks is intentional. The novella follows the adventures of a bohemian kid poet, Micah Smith, and the lack of quotation marks is there to accentuate the beautifully silent poetry, or silent noise, of our young but determined protagonist.

I enjoy this chapter. I’ve always thought there’s been an undistilled aggression and elitism behind much of the avant-garde (which started in the late nineteenth century with the Symbolist poets, and continued with the Modernist and Postmodernist writers, in one guise or another), and I like, in this depiction, how Micah soothsays Vanguard, the intense avant-garde poet, with his poetry and ideas, showing how, despite the aggression of Vanguard, the desire to create good art and to learn, can actually serve everyone well in the end … though it takes a knack for the written word and for poetry, for language, as well as quite a bit of determination and heart.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the chapter!

Mute 

 

After talking to The Ghost Girl, my world seems to be even better than it already was. I feel more confident to talk to random people and share my poetry, and I think people are noticing, because they seem more interested in my words. 

 

It’s been a few days since I talked to The Ghost Girl, but I can still feel her presence. She’s with me like a humble spirit, and I know I’m going to see her again, sometime in the future. I just have to be patient. I have to be patient on my journey to set her free. 

 

I’m in a city now, and it’s a very busy city. That’s when I see another person to talk to.  

 

Immediately, I can tell he lives an unconventional life. He strikes me as an anarchist, perhaps even in a Postmodern sense, because he’s wearing a black shirt that says, “Language Sells” in white, with his right ear pierced, and a determined look in his eyes. He’s wearing a nice pair of jeans, but it’s the shirt and the piercing that give away that he doesn’t really like to conform to anything, as well as the book he’s holding, which I notice is literally on fire. I don’t question that he’s somehow holding a book that’s literally on fire and not getting burned, because I know life can be magical. 

 

I pull him over, speak my sign. Did you want to hear a poem? 

 

Is it a good poem? he signs angrily. I’m kind of in a hurry. 

 

First off, I’m surprised that he can speak my language. Second, I’m surprised that his anger can be so apparent in his hand gestures, like he’s just yelled at me like an outraged lieutenant. However, none of this deters me, and I ask his name after I tell him mine. 

 

Vanguard, he responds. I’d much rather get in a conversation of poetry than listen to it. You look fresh out of the academy, not suited for sharing poetry yet. But talking about it may refine your skills a little. 

 

I can tell that this poet is an avant-garde poet, hence why he doesn’t like to conform, hence why he has the attitude, even if an elitist one. But I like him nonetheless. I don’t know what poetry would be like if it didn’t have avant-garde poets. It could never push the boundaries, that’s for certain. 

 

I decide to keep the conversation light, to start things off and see where things go. Who is your favorite poet? 

 

I don’t have a favorite poet, Vanguard responds, but I’ll tell you what poets I despise: anything written before the Minimalist Poets and the Language Poets. I think they, as far as poetry is concerned, really kick-started what poetry can do. The Minimalists showed that the Imagists were too simple in their approach and that language can be even more concise and enigmatic, and the Language Poets pushed that enigma even further. But I only read experimental poetry. Though I’ll confess that I like Yeats, from that old and outdated movement of Modernism. Not too much, though, a poem here and there, if it’s a good day. Though I think that he was a much better playwright than a poet. His poetry needlessly overcomplicates itself and becomes ironically too simple, while his plays, even though not too deep in a linguistic sense, tend to be very mystical, a quality I like in poetry. Though I will admit that Yeats did good with his poem The Second Coming, even if it’s canonical and overplayed, like Eliot’s Waste Land. 

 

I have to admit, I’m both floored and afraid of what this fellow poet has to tell me. Should I even tell him that I like Dante? Sure, it’s only his opinion, that Poetry didn’t start until the Minimalist Poets and the Language Poets, but I still feel like if I admit I like Dante, he’ll think I’m not just mute in a literal sense, but in an intellectual sense as well. Not that I’m a fan of that kind of philistinism, but I’m still curious to know what this guy has to say. 

 

I decide to gamble and tell him Dante is my favorite poet. 

 

Dante? he signs, and I can tell he’s disgusted. Why would you like Dante? Though I guess it’s not that surprising. You strike me as an old school type, pseudo-scholastical in nature. 

 

That’s not offensive at all, I sign jokingly, and he can tell. 

 

His intensity doesn’t wither though. Why do you like Dante? I’ll at least permit you that question. 

 

Because he’s a good poet. The things he accomplished, all with poetry. It’s remarkable. His poetry is truly epic.  

 

You can’t even say why though, Vanguard signs. Dante’s a bad poet. He overinflates his own form with his heady attempts. They don’t work.  

 

What do you mean? I sign, and continue: I have to disagree. None of his own form is overinflated by his theories: in fact, his theories complement his poetry. Plus, Dante should be valued, even in avant-garde circles. Dante was one of the first poets in the history of poetry to write metapoetry. Having Virgil as a character in his own epic? You have to admit, that’s pretty metapoetic. 

 

Yes, yes, I see your point, Vanguard signs impatiently. The thing is, you’re using a reductive approach to understand the avant-garde. We aren’t just into “metapoetry.” We’re conscious to that degree, yes, and you’ll find metapoetry in the contemporary avant-garde, but we do so much more with the form, and so much more than form.  

 

Well, it isn’t like you aren’t reductive to Medieval poetry, I sign, but still lightly.  

 

Vanguard doesn’t say anything for a moment, just looks deep in contemplation. 

 

Well, at least you found a poet you like, Vanguard says. I guess we need Medieval scholars out there. My point is I don’t care about poetry that comes before the 1950’s, generally, and even there, there’s poetry I hate. I’m not a fan of The New York School, though I can stand a little bit of Frank O Hara. However, I don’t think he captured Abstract Expressionism through language correctly. His poems feel more like spontaneous stream of consciousness portraits with random dabs of paint splattered on than anything else. 

 

I smile internally at Vanguard. He’s passionate, all right. I may disagree with every one of his claims, but he knows his stuff. And he is excited about it, even if he pretends not to be. Even if he has an elitist way of looking at things, he knows what gets him to think, and what gets him enthusiastic. 

 

I change the topic slightly, though, to get away from some of the aggression of Vanguard. I sign, I’m surprised you know sign language. It’s hard to communicate when that’s all you know, but I would have been missing out if I hadn’t met you. I like this conversation. 

 

Vanguard doesn’t seem too impressed by the complement. He says, I make it my business to know language: it is, after all, the currency of our communication. I speak about ten languages, ranging from Mandarin Chinese to Latin. Sign language just happens to be one of them. 

 

He doesn’t say anything for a moment. I look at his book, which I’ve noticed is a little bit brighter with its flame. I imagine the book represents Vanguard’s heart in some ways, and him talking about his passion has fueled some of the fire. 

 

So, why do you think that poetry has to be so technically rigorous to have value? I ask. Why can’t it be simple? Why does it have to include mathematics and advanced scientific principles to be so elite? Why does it have to be more experimental than Christian Bok or Susan Howe? 

 

Hey, I like Bok and Howe, though I think Bok is only good at the conceptual side of poetry, and Howe is only good as a stylist. But I see your point. There’s a lot of reasons. We need poetry to push the boundaries to know what it can do for poetic progress, to fly past the horizon, so to speak. It’s not that I hate poetry that’s more traditional … okay, I admit it, I hate poetry that’s more traditional. But poetry becomes outdated. That’s what an empirical society is, after all, and does. Zola, that antiquarian positivist, would certainly agree with me. We thus need newer forms to test older, outdated theories of language and poetry, if we’re going to progress. Plus, as you can tell, I’m an anarchist, so naturally, I go around burning books. We’d be better off starting from scratch. 

 

I see your point, but you’re still thinking like a Postmodernist, rather than anyone past that stage of our literary evolution, which counteracts your theory of the avant-garde. The Postmodernists believed there was no center— 

 

So, what are you saying? Vanguard signs. I’m not original in my approach? Maybe you should read my poetry first, before you start judging. 

 

I’m not judging, I’m just saying, movements in art feed off other movements in art, even unconsciously. 

 

Well, that’s what I don’t want to do … even unconsciously. I think art should be rigorous to scare away the people who aren’t real poets and readers of poetry and challenge the ones who are. I think the more rigorous the poetry is, the more interesting it is, because the more it’s challenging older forms of art. 

 

I still think it’s too Postmodern of a viewpoint. Starting from scratch can be a good way to do things, but we can’t do that forever. If we just erase older poets like Li Po and Homer, where would we be as a culture? 

 

Well, obviously I don’t care about poetry as an act of preserving culture, Vanguard points out heatedly. Obviously it’s about progress. Obviously it’s about innovation. Without innovation, writing is nothing. It means nothing. We have to keep up with the times. That’s where I depart, philosophically, from the Postmodern poets, and become even more transcendental than transavantgardism 

 

I take all of these points in, fascinated but not quite sure how I could ever appropriate any of his theories to my own practice. They are too radical. He reminds me of a libertarian, just in a poetic sense … an extreme libertarian. Nonetheless, I can see where’s he’s coming from, even if I disagree. 

 

Obviously you can tell I don’t believe in conformity, of any kind, Vanguard continues. If you conform through poetry, you first off, aren’t doing anything new, and second, you’re not thinking outside of your comfort zone, which makes your mind dead, useless. It no longer becomes a tool, poetry no longer becomes a tool. It just becomes defunct. 

 

So, so aggressive and radical. So determined to only like rigorous poetry. I like this, as a thought experiment, but know it’s more than that. I begin to have doubts about liking Dante. I begin to wonder if Dante is truly a great poet. I wonder if he’s even going to last. He’s made it this far, but from the perspective of the avant-garde, will Dante truly stand the test of time? Not that it’s the same kind of test of time, in avant-gardism, of course. Because indeed, Dante, to me, stands the test of time because of his intellectual and poetical prowess, as others would agree, but in an avant-garde sense, nothing can stand the test of time, because they realize that poetry will die out eventually, as even powerful stars must die, and so it must do everything it can do to survive, by being so technically rigorous and strong in that sense. 

 

Vanguard doesn’t have to tell me any of this for me to get it. 

 

I have a poem to share, if you don’t mind, I sign. 

 

Okay, okay, but hurry up, all right? I have to get going. 

 

Okay, I say, and then sign my poem. 

 

The lamb sleeps on the gentle pasture, 

 

calm and lying in a peaceful rapture. 

 

I look at Vanguard for a response, but his face is blank. Then that characteristic anger appears, sparks, and he signs, That’s all you’ve got? God, that was worse than Edmund Spenser. It was way too simple, way too rustic, and I didn’t like the religious undertones. You talk about poetry better than you write poetry. But again, you’re fresh out of the academy, so that’s not that surprising. 

 

Edmund Spenser’s language may be rustic, but it’s also challenging, linguistically. You should give The Shepherd’s Calendar a second try. Plus, think about what Spenser did with The Faerie Queene. Who writes that consistently for so long? It’s about as epic as it gets, that poem. 

I guess I can revisit Spenser, Vanguard concedes. But only because I like you. 

 

Thanks, I sign. So, do you recommend anything for me to read? 

 

Well, my favorite book is a book called Mute by a new poet named Stephen Vincent Greene. Thing is, I can tell he’s got a lot of talent, and he’s going to take the avant-garde world by storm. Basically, his book is a logical explication of the silence of language. He basically, in his poetic book, analyzes how words in the English language are silent. But it reads like a linguistic text, except it’s poetry, because it’s so rigorous analytically. He also, to make it more complex, intersperses ultra-contemporary poems into his work, to show the silences functioning in the poems. I haven’t seen anything that technical since the realization that even blank-sheet poems have words on them. 

 

And then, Vanguard drifts a little bit. He looks happy, which is a rare thing for Vanguard, but I can tell it’s because he’s lost thinking about his favorite book.  

 

I’ll have to check it out, I tell my friend. 

 

Yeah, do. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll revisit some old Spenser. I’ll try to figure out what you see in his writing. 

 

Fair enough, I say, and realize I don’t want to leave Vanguard. However, he’s the one who does the leaving: before I know it, he’s taken his book, after waving at me, and left, and I stand there, my head swirling with competition and aggression, but also wonder.

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