Todd Moore | Photo: Pete Jonsson
Pushing the envelope. And, in poetry, that’s the name of the game, isn’t it? Trying to see how far you can go before you fuck it up. Because, in poetry, there is a very fine line between writing a poem of pure genius and just fucking it all up classic trainwreck style. Lorca never touched on the subject of fucking up in The Play And Theory Of The Duende. But, the implication there is that if you refuse the duende or if you squander it, then you will fail, you will fry in the heat and the energy of the duende. You will burn, baby, burn.
Strangely enough, there is some kind of peculiar death wish allure to fucking up as a poet. The trick, if you can pull it off, is to come to within inches of oblivion and still write that one all time poem that makes your bones and then sends fracture lines all the way through them, both almost at the same time. The trick is to write ARIEL before sticking your head in the oven. The trick is to write THE BRIDGE before diving toward the sharks. The trick is to write POET IN NEW YORK before the fascists come to rub their rifles all over your body. The trick is to paint GUERNICA, have the canvas rolled and be long gone before the stormtroopers pull up to your house wearing black shirts, driving black cars, black rage, black guns, black everything.
The temptation in poetry is to fuck up and fuck it all up in the epic manner. And, this coexists right along with the ambition to write the greatest poem ever. And, lets not be coy here. If you are a poet, you are probably the most arrogant son of a bitch on the face of the planet. You are the equal of Whitman, Shakespeare, Homer, and you are a hundred times better than the poor bastard on open mike night who is signed up to read just before you. If you are a poet, you have an ego the size of the Grand Canyon. And, if you don’t, then you are already finished though you may not know it. And, nobody is going to tell you because the sweetest revenge of all against mediocrity is to just let you swing and kick in the wind.
Almost anyone can fuck up and most of us do at one time or another but it takes a towering genius to fuck up in the grand beyond grand manner. Only Jack Micheline could have died on a BART train. Only John Berryman could have taken a header off a Mississippi River bridge with DREAM SONG Henry talking to him all the way down to the ice. Only d. a. levy could have danced his 22 rifle across his apartment floor before giving us the ultimate poem and blowjob of death.
The trick, the real trick is to write a masterpiece of a poem while balancing a razor blade on top of a vein. The trick is to play russian roulette with Mayakovsky’s nerve and Mayakovsky’s style. It almost seemed as though the gesture of putting the gun barrel against his chest was a kind of performance poetry that, if he didn’t invent, he sure as hell perfected. The trick is to drink as hard and as long as Charles Bukowski or Kell Robertson and still be able to write something as solid as BURNING IN WATER, DROWNING IN FLAME, or A HORSE CALLED DESPERATION. The trick is to do eight through Raton Pass in the dead of winter across black ice while writing the poem to end all poems about Billy the Kid Tony Moffeit style.
The trick is to have style in the first place. When the fascists shot Lorca, the one thing they couldn’t kill was his style. And, I’d like to think that at least one of those mothers had to know that. Had to realize that no matter how many bullets you fire into a corpse you can’t kill a poet’s style. The trick is to have style even in the face of death. Death has no distinctive sound but a great poet does. The trick is to have style because no matter what that is your sound, no matter what that is your look, that is your swagger down the corridors of oblivion. And, it doesn’t matter how many third raters, how many envious wannabes try attacking you for who you are, where you came from, or what you have become. Because style is the essence of your authenticity, style is your armor, and style is the very core of what you can do when nobody else can do it as well or with as much courage and grace.
Style saved Lorca when nothing else could. Style gave Micheline the permission to die en route from nowhere to nowhere. Style made Bukowski really look like somebody while he was drinking and strolling down Sunset Boulevard or Rodeo Drive or some no exit broken down skidrow street in deathtown L. A. Style was Slinger Ed Dorn wearing that kickass cowboy hat while leaning into the camera. Style is the gutbucket gravel going way back inside Tony Moffeit’s voice while he belts out Voodoo Casanova. Style is Mark Weber reading anything from PLAIN OLD BOOGIE LONG DIVISION. Style is all about Dennis Gulling writing a death trip poem at the bottom of an insurance claims form. Style is Dillinger who was nothing but style.
The thing about style and fucking up is that they are intimately and recklessly entwined, related, the blood idiot twins who can make you look way beyond wonderful or they can exile you to the shithouse of the ho hum, the boring, the furiously banal. One thing to remember is you can’t make yourself have style. It doesn’t work that way. It just comes as a byproduct of the madman inside you. Just as you cannot will yourself to write a great poem, you cannot fake style. If you try to fake style in a poem or in the way that you live, you are truly done for. All of your poetry cred and all of your street cred are gone, sayonara, bye by, and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.
The interesting thing about style and fucking up is that they somehow balance each other out. You can die like Plath with your head in an oven and still survive through the powerhouse poem. You can die like Mayakovsky, with your blood swimming all over your blood and still make it clean because you taught Frank O’Hara how to write some of the best poetry ever. And, you can die like Berryman whose DREAM SONGS have somehow become part of our death songs. This is when the poem becomes a truly unbeatable style.
And, fucking up becomes the darkest of all myths. Mayakovsky died in a flash of gunfire at the age of thirty six. He looked good, he looked very good. The cameras loved his scruffy streetfighter fuck you demeanor. And, now his Rodchenko face appears far more interesting than Pasternak’s which took a savage beating from dealing with Stalin. At the other end of the spectrum is Bukowski’s face which survived a teenage bout of acne and god knows how many rights to the jaw. Which makes him look ugly and makes him look alive with electric charisma.