Friday, November 21, 2008

November's Poem of the Month, by Aaron Belz



If I’m in such good company, please
explain why I have to keep looking
over my shoulder to see who’s not there:

ghost of the staircase, living
room phantasm—whispered jokes,
unheard and ungotten—or maybe not.

I call them the comedians of chance,
and I have discovered that they’re
completely cornball. Canned.

They’ve written routines
in sharpie on their luminous
hands and keep looking down

to see what comes next. My father
used to laud people who know
“what goes where,” but I swear,

I don’t anymore—it’s all up in the air,
half-visible pins twirling end over
end, and I, their ghastly juggler.

Whispered Jokes gets your attention in the title and alerts the reader to look for what might be forthcoming: perhaps jokes whispered to self, some kind of cryptic messaging. The opening strophe gives what could pass for a joke: “If I’m in such good company, please/ explain why I have to keep looking/ over my shoulder to see who’s not there.” And who’s ‘not there’ is, namely, a “ghost”, or a “phantasm.” In short, “whispered ghosts,” perhaps unheard or whose punch lines are “ungotten.” The speaker calls the joke-tellers “comedians of chance,” and tells us that they’re “completely cornball.” Further attention is given to how and where they’re written, such as “in sharpie,” and “on their luminous hands.” The processes involved are alluded to as “routines.” There is a tone and content shift in S5 where the speaker speaks of his father who “used to laud people who know ‘what goes where,’” and uses the construct to insert an unsettling sense of ambivalence in personal experience: "I swear,/ I don’t anymore-it’s all up in the air.” The poem ends in a characterization of the problem and consequences of not knowing or understanding something key and fundamental in the evocative image of pins which are “half-visible,” and “twirling end over end,” with the speaker as the “ghastly juggler.

This poem, with its seemingly off-handed and light tone, has much to offer in speaking to the fundamental nature of how we learn, how we know, and how we accommodate to things we feel we can’t understand. The poem’s rolls out freely with easy words and syntax. Nothing complex here. And yet, there is a kind of deceptive foil here for an underlying deeper consideration of identity and self-appraisal. Additionally, the formal presentation, though not rhymed (except for 'swear/air' near the end) is nonetheless nicely put together in neat, free-flowing tercets, further directing the reader into the poetics of the speaker.

Some key questions are raised at the beginning of this poem. What is the nature of these “whispered jokes,” who are the people that are saying them… and to whom are they being said? As well, the poem seems to be addressing the issue of how we process what we’ve learned, what we make of past failures, for example. And how do we make order out of what often appears to be a disordered, random world.

We can see by the speaker’s opening interrogative, that there’s some degree of equivocation in his voice. This is not a prescriptive essay or a document on how to solve the world’s problems. It is the speaker sort of talking out loud, remembering his own ghosts and phantasms walking around his house (perhaps as a child), jokes uttered and not heard, or not understood. But the jokes aren't one-liners. These are innuendos, rationale, ways of thinking to ward off other ways of thinking.

The dissonance increases in S3 where the speaker, who has his own expression for these jokesters, “comedians of chance,” makes a decided tone-shift away from self-examination and toward mild invective. Here we find that the speaker has a distaste for the joke-tellers who tell 'corny' jokes; but worse, actually write them down (in indelible ink) and then refer to them as needed. This is perhaps the moment at which the poem turns from inward to outward commentary. The speaker seems to be making an ethical statement regarding meaning. Is it enough to rely on past performance, old jokes or riddles which cannot suffice, in unwrapping the serious issues of life? Indeed, they often return (as ghosts) to haunt, rather than providing any sort of apologetic for living. The speaker references his own father, and relates his (the speaker's) obvious disdain for that kind of philosophy which is blithely self-confident (“people who know what goes where.)” It leaves one wondering what the subtext is here. As with many poets, a father (or mother) theme will pop in and out of poems freely, and the poem gives room and desire to hear more on this subject. Still, it amps up the immediacy of feeling. There is a bewilderment in the voice here, that it should be so easy for these kind of people to be cavalier in their movement through life, that they would have nothing better to do than rehearse old jokes.

This is a direct poem. It tweaks the reader to ask their own questions and assumptions about what makes them sure. Not that we should be fettered with doubt. But the poem speaks to a kind of unguarded optimism that doesn’t examine deeply into meaning. And what is left? “Half-visible pins twirling end over end, and I, their ghastly juggler.” Here we find the result of such thinking: enervating, dangerous, a vacuous pursuit.


Aaron Belz writes poetry in Los Angeles. He has a Ph.D. in American Literature from Saint Louis University and an M.A. in Creative Writing from NYU. His first book of poetry,The Bird Hoverer, was published by Buffalo: BlazeVOX Books, in 2007. Aaron’s second book of poems, Direction, is forthcoming from Persea. Some of his poems, essays, biographical history and much more- may be found at these websites (just click):
belz blog
belz poetry on wordpress


Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Drive for Recognition in the Internet Age


The Drive for Recognition in the Internet Age

It’s not a Sunday morning drive, looking at fields and falling leaves. It’s more of a speedway demolition derby; and, at the end of the day, everyone surveys the landscape looking for the victorious and panning the vanquished. It’s more a primal battle for superiority where what’s at stake is self-esteem and legitimacy, a raison d'ĂȘtre for your ambivalent soul. It pervades every profession and avocation. Politician, artisan, student and writer. The prize, nothing short of eternity. A place in the history books. A seat on the throne.

Well, if you haven’t felt that way about it, you’re still invited to read on. I’d like to focus this short essay on what I perceive to be a universal need for recognition, especailly exemplified in writing. After all, that’s what most of us do when we post to the Internet. Whether it’s the story of your day, or your latest magnum opus (“this is one of my better works, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one!”) The Internet has come along to fan the flames of eternal recognition. The ante’s up, and the profit (in ‘recognition’ terms) can be so much greater. The blog hits so much higher. The reach so much wider. Here’s a chance, with a little networking and a lot of staying power, to get your word out. Here’s an opportunity, in the quiet of your study, to infiltrate millions of minds with what only you can say. And say it best. Don’t mind the dilution factor. We’ve always been up against numbers. Still, the loudest voice will be heard. The most strident call, the most urgent cautionary tale and doomsday prediction mandating the greatest attention. So get to work. You’ve got a few good years left, and there’s nothing better than instant gratification.

Or not. Do you buy into these premises? Probably not, but millions do ( I can't really say that with certitude, knowing that this little essay will reach only hundreds, mew hah hah). Freud, not one of my favorite founding fathers of psychology, did however say something, somewhere, that’s always stuck in my craw. He said, “Maturity is the ability to defer self-gratification.” If this is true, which I think it might be, then, on the Internet, we have a hundred million immature internet avatars looking for new and improved ways of fulfilling their lust for self-recognition. Is this putting it too harshly? I think not, having experienced, like you, the thirty-second delay (on a good day) it takes to receive feedback on a poem or a piece of writing, courtesy of my community website or social networking group. And I’ve been on the self-deluding train to Recognition City many, many times. That nonstop transcontinental line that stops for nobody, and all the paying customers are served fine meals, and sit around watching the beautiful landscape pass by while they discuss mutual successes.

But what is recognition and how does the internet influence and affect it? First of all, the desire to be recognized for what we consider ourselves to possess, be it the ability to write, the sensitivity to be compassionate, the natural gifts of athletics… whatever it may be- is, of course, a very legitimate pursuit. Indeed, it's hard to imagine writing without the potential to be recognized in the back of your mind. What you write may be qualitative. Or it may be quantitative. It may be helpful. It may only be artful. It may be base, or it may be aesthetic. Still, we view it as something of a 'special' entity, something we’d like to share (that word!); and, yes, something for which we wouldn’t mind being recognized. For even the most altruistic, self-effacing and zen of writers, the desire to be read cannot be shrugged away (there may be a few existentialists left out there who can write in a vacuum and feel self-fulfilled, but these cannot be quantified, as they remain in dark places with no internet connectivity).

New and expanding opportunities of reaching people through the internet, coupled in negative fashion with an increasingly competitive and exclusive marketplace for print publications, has led writers to saturate the world wide web with their wares. Self-publications, blogs, ezines and other personalized vehicles for getting the word out have exploded onto the scene. And what is the net effect? What might this look like in the year 2080? Or, if you have trouble with that short a prognostication, how about in the year 4080? How will the participants in this Internet Age be judged many years from now? Will there be reference manuals for the great writers of the internet age (GWIA), or a data base for the most read poets on the world wide web from 2000-2080 (MRP-WWW)?

I think not. And the reason will be (you can quote me on this), that all the great writers were too busy writing, and thus unable (and unwilling) to spend the hours necessary to get the proper recognition they might have (or might not have) earned on the Internet. All the great writers continued to read and think and work on their craft, while all of us networking sluts continued to get our names and work out there on WWW, filling in the unfillable Intenet trash heap with more and more garbage. Perhaps the one great legacy will be monumental hard drive capacity records, groups of ‘authors’ who have collectively pounded out the greatest mound of spent hard discs in the annals of human history. Google, to the google power, of text, neatly filed away in the New Writers of the Internet Age (NWIA), housed in a special annex to the Library of Congress. However, you won’t be able to visit the stacks. But you can just log on and search NWIA. You might even find me there!
EDN 11/1/08