I’m sitting in bed at the moment next to my lovely wife, who’s reading a holiday catalog. She is fixated on a spread peddling bacon-themed gifts. Bacon-strip ties. Tee shirts imprinted with images of bacon. Bacon Christmas ornaments.
She remarks, “This is the most moronic thing I’ve ever seen. Who is this stuff aimed at?”
I don’t answer because I’m engaged in something even more idiotic. I’m reading about a book called Gentle Reader!. It is a product generated by three contemporary poets through a process of erasing passages from certain works of Romantic-era writers. I haven’t read and will not read the book—my book budget is devoted to writers who actually write—but I am reading an interview with said “authors” published, of all places, on The Kenyon Review blog. Evidently, the famous Kenyon nostalgia for the bygone Confederacy has been replaced by a taste for the literary equivalent of Gallagher busting up perfectly good watermelons with a wooden sledgehammer.
The interviewer, a high-minded fellow named Andrew David King, introduces his interview with Joshua Beckman, Anthony McCann, and Matthew Rohrer by floating some high-minded ideas about why this band of merry vandals should have undertaken such a frankly inexplicable task. “Was it random?” King asks (apparently unaware of what the word “random” means). “A decision to interrogate the canon?” (A marginally better guess, since the project is a kind of literary water-boarding.) “An experiment to see how the traditional lyric would hold up when taken as fodder for modernist praxis?” (The word “praxis” is a dead giveaway that he’s serious about this suggestion; the word “practice” would suffice, but of course wouldn’t give off the heady whiff of grad school that “praxis” does.*) Of course, King quickly yields to the bards themselves explaining themselves. Their musings are amusing, as one might expect.
Rohrer blames his participation on a vision of Coleridge “stretched across the sky over Brooklyn, looming over me, leering.” How he not respond by erasing Coleridge?
McCann, after some intriguing speculation on the aggressive nature of erasure, offers the notion that the group “wanted to collaborate more intensely with these dead people.” Had he read Roberto Bolaño‘s great short story “The Return,” he might have reconsidered.
For Beckman the impetus was primarily “a way of making a shared creative life feel more present. Something thriving and social.” He might hesitate to say he did it for fun, but that’s the impression he leaves with his remarks.
Quick—try to imagine T. S. Eliot erasing Andrew Marvell. Walt Whitman erasing the Psalms. Elizabeth Bishop erasing Hopkins. As Jesse on Breaking Bad would say: Seriously?**
I won’t waste more time on all this. You can read the interview for yourself. You can buy the book, if defacement appeals to you.
Me? I’m indulging my own taste for the Absurd by trying to decide between the Wakin’ Shakin’ Bacon Alarm Clock and the bacon-flavored toothpaste.
* Erasure, as noted in this handy history, is not a “modernist praxis.” It dates to 1968’s 5 Biblical Poems, by Jackson Mac Low—about as far from “modernist” as one can get. A more modernist project, also dating from 1968, is Armand Schwerner‘s The Tablets, available compleat from The National Poetry Foundation. The Tablets, of course, simply (actually, complexly) imitates the erasures of time; the words on the page belong to the Schwerner.
** I need to say that I’m not attacking these individual poets, each of whom has written poems I admire. It’s the faux intellectual underpinnings of their collaboration that gets my goat. If they’d had roots in American academe, the Taliban would have claimed that dynamiting the 1700-year-old statues of Buddha was merely a case of avant-garde performance art.