I apologize for the random and scattered quality of today's post — though I've been told, by friends who are much more reliable authorities on the art of blogging than I am, that it's perfectly acceptable for a blog to be composed of, as they put it, a "brain dump" — i.e. a collection of more or less random thoughts that happen to be passing through one's mind on a particular day. I'm fairly busy at the moment getting ready for a trip to Missouri — where I'll be giving poetry readings at Central Missouri University in Warrensburg on Thursday, and then, on Saturday, in St. Louis — so I guess this seemed like a good time to take advantage of blogging's lax — sorry, I meant open and flexible — standards.
Last week I gave a reading in Chicago, at a bar called the Hopleaf — part of Chicago's Bookslut series. (If you love books but are not familiar with the Bookslut website, well, check it out). Also reading was Rebecca Barry, author of the "novel in stories" Later, at the Bar. One of the poems I read from, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Ruined by Reading the Cantos of Ezra Pound," is entirely composed of book titles — that is, each line is the title of some book I own and/or have read. After reading the second stanza, I paused to mention to the audience that that stanza was a particular favorite of mine because it contained four book titles by a single author — an author who happened to be a favorite of mine, though he's not nearly as well known as he should be. I asked if anyone could name the author, and when no one else answered Rebecca Barry said, "Uhm, Lee K. Abbott?"
Well of course, it was indeed Lee K. Abbott. And of course Rebecca Barry knew — because later, when I got back to my hotel room and got out the copy of Later, at the Bar I had just acquired, I discovered the very generous 'thank you' Barry offers to Abbott in the book's Acknowledgments. (She writes that his "fingerprints are all over the collection," and basically states that the book wouldn't exist if not for his encouragement.) There's a blurb on the back from Abbott, too. An interesting coincidence, especially considering that I have read that poem to audiences several times, and have never before explicitly identified LKA — or any of the other authors, for that matter.
I suppose this tiny incident connects with something I've been thinking a lot about lately, which is the way we form little aesthetic communities with others who are pleased, or attracted, or excited, by similar things. Alexander Nehamas talks about this in his recent and utterly fascinating book, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art. Nehamas is responding to Immanuel Kant's claim that to state that something is beautiful (as opposed to merely claiming that one likes it or finds it pleasant, etc.) is to make a kind of universal claim — a claim one expects everyone to agree with. There seems to be something right about this; but as Nehamas very sensibly points out, I don't really want everyone to find beautiful the same things I do, or to be excited by the same things that excite me. In fact, Nehamas says, there is something horrifying about the idea of a world of complete aesthetic agreement. Among other things, we would entirely lose something that tends to be very important to us, the feeling that knowing about and appreciating a certain work, or a certain artist, sets us apart, and makes us part of a special, distinctive, perhaps even (dare I say it?) elite group. In other words, you might despise the world for ignoring your favorite band; but if the world discovered your favorite band you'd be disappointed, and you'd say "Oh, they sold out." You'd start despising them.
I've been reading Forrest Gander lately — such an intriguing, puzzling poet — and twice in doing so I've had the sort of experience I'm talking about. The first time was when I came across Gander's essay about the singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, and the second was when I found that one of his books was dedicated to the Canadian poet Christopher Dewdney. Both Chesnutt and Dewdney are cult figures of a sort — as is Gander, really; and to discover that I am joined in cult figure fandom to this cult figure does give a pleasant little spark.
I wrote in yesterday's post that if Hemingway had never published his books, "Not only our literature, but our very ways of thinking would be different, in ways that it is impossible to know or describe in detail precisely because he did exist, he did publish his novels, and as a result our minds and perceptions are in part shaped by his work." Someone suggested to me that perhaps I was overstating the case. I don't think I was. One thing studying philosophy teaches you is that ideas are not the abstract, insubstantial entities they are often pictured as being. Every action anyone performs is shaped by what that person thinks; and every thought a person thinks had to come from somewhere — even the ones that strike us as the most obvious. The ideas that we are all created with equal rights and moral standing, for instance, or that the government gets its authority to governed from the people it governs, who may therefore take it back, tend to strike us as commonplaces obvious to anyone who just opens their eyes. But we have them in large part because individual thinkers — most particularly, in this case, the philosopher John Locke — came up with them and formulated them in ways that made them seem attractive and plausible. Even the idea of self-interested materialism, which many people assume to be a natural, instinctive human trait, is really a complex worldview with a long, traceable history. The ancient Greeks, for example, would have found it impossible to understand the pursuit of the accumulation of wealth that so many people today take entirely for granted.
"Be the change you want to see in the world." When I hear this I want to say: you must be joking! I can't even manage to be the change I want to see in myself...
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Troy Jollimore is a native of Nova Scotia. He studied philosophy at Princeton University and currently teaches at California State University, Chico. His first book of poetry, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, was chosen by Billy Collins for the MARGIE/Intuit House Poetry Series, and won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award.
Books mentioned in this post
Troy Jollimore is the author of Tom Thomson in Purgatory