Permutational Aesthetics and The Kinks' "Come Dancing"

Previous posts on permutational aesthetics:
Permutational Aesthetics and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive

In the first post on permutational aesthetics, a sort of definition was given:
Fiction that derives from the biographical has the amazing opportunity to correct the moments in our lives that we might regret, or that didn't go the way we were planning. Writing allows for a kind of consummation that life does not.
This correction, of course, is the permutation, the redesign of a moment or series of moments into a new moment in a work of art. Art, of course, is a socially acceptable space in which to create a permutation, lest anyone end up like Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo, manipulating Judy into changing everything about herself in order to re-create what is, unknown to him at the time, a sort of  play for his benefit that was designed to cover up a murder. Of course, Scottie's re-creation goes horribly wrong, with Judy, finally made into Madeleine, falling to her death.

Naturally, permutation and trauma are interconnected: it is often a trauma which leads to the recreation of a situation in art that cannot be made to occur in real life. And while previous posts have focused on poets, fiction writers and filmmakers, there has been an exclusion which is obvious: the world of music. Music, with its necessary abstraction of sound, is not always a place for permutational work, in that it is primarily the lyrics which function as a re-creation and not the music itself.

Released in the fall of 1982 in the U.K. (spring of 1983 in the U.S.), The Kinks' "Come Dancing" is a charming song about nostalgia for a bygone era in which the "big bands used to come and play" at a local Palais, or dance hall. The nostalgia in the song, of course, is not only for the era, but for the singer's sister, who would frequent the Palais with a date who would "end up blowing all his wages for the week/all for a cuddle and a peck on the cheek." The nostalgia here leans towards a young man's sexual awakening, the realization that the men who dated his sister were interested in sex and that his sister was seemingly only interested in going out and having a good time while having her expenses paid for the evening. The singer realizes, as an adult perhaps, that it was these moments that he remembers when thinking of his sister, of understanding the dynamics involved in the relationship between her, the date and the Palais. The sexual element plays out in the singer's voyeurism, a curiosity about very simple sexual practices which, to the singer, seem foreign and from which he must hide himself despite his desire to continue watching.

For Ray Davies, the lead singer and, in this case, the songwriter of "Come Dancing," the nostalgia here stems from a trauma which leads to the song being not only a tribute but ultimately an act of permutational re-creation. Thomas Kitts, in his 2008 critical biography of Davies, writes that Davies' older sister, Rene, suffered a fatal heart attack at the Lyceum ballroom on the songwriter's 13th birthday, for which she had purchased a Spanish guitar as a present. These two events, for Davies, must be inextricably linked: music, of course, became his way of entering the world but only through the tragedy of his sister's untimely death at the age of 31.1

The sister of Davies' song, however, lives a happier life: she has not only grown older but has daughters of her own for whom she, in continuation of an earlier theme about their mother, must now wait up until they return home at all hours of the night. This is, of course, the very nature of permutation: giving life to one who has not had the opportunity to enjoy it and giving to them, through art, a sort of gift. In Davies' case, it is hard to deny that this is a sort of ideal he imagines not only for her but for himself, a sister who, for the simple asking, would be willing to go dancing with him, which of course further plays upon the sexual fantasies of the singer and his voyeuristic viewing of his sister with your would-be lover "by the garden gate." Perhaps in Davies' case, dancing could be seen as a stand-in for his musical career, which his sister allowed him to begin, but which she never saw.

For the singer in the song, his childhood dies "the day they knocked down the Palais," though in considering the formative age at which he not only received the instrument he has spent his life with but also the trauma he has suffered with his sister's sudden death, it seems very likely this moment for Davies not only marked the end of his childhood but also the metaphorical death of the Palais and the era of big band music. Of course, for the singer, and for Davies, the death of the Palais and the death of his sister, respectively, has given direction to his life as he has "grown up and [is] playing in a band." The town, too, has moved on and leaves the listener with similar feelings for locations long gone. For Davies, however, the pain is deeper and the song allows him the space to process these emotions, however complex, into a new moment.

1 Kitts, Thomas M. Not Like Everybody Else. Routledge, 2008.


Joseph Ceravolo Project/Help Request

Today, an idea hit me: why not record and catalog as many of the 100 signed and numbered copies of Joseph Ceravolo's Transmigration Solo? As many of you know, The Joseph Ceravolo Project has been my labor of love since I discovered Ceravolo's work in 2005 (not that long ago and yet nearing a decade, strangely). I've written on TS in the past, of course, and hope to contribute to its history by keeping this record for its 100 signed and numbered copies.

If you know of a copy at your nearest university or public library or if you or someone you know has one, please email me at amishius at gmail dot com. Happy to contact that library or person to verify the number and signature. If it's yours or you help me, I'll gladly list you in the notes, even if it turns out the copy isn't not signed and numbered.

Follow the list over at the Ceravolo Project page- I'll update it as information rolls in.


Tragipoetics IV

On Seth Abramson's "Last Words for Elliot Rodger," or Timeliness

from KTLA

Tragipoetics I
Tragipoetics II
Tragipoetics III

NB: I realize in writing this post I am wading into a proper quagmire. There are lots of issues here which I feel very strongly about and I understand that I am also addressing an audience for whom these issues are also the source of heavy emotional response. I myself had a strong emotional response to Rodger’s mass murder as well as the reasons for it, which I admit will be hard to escape while discussing his words and his actions.

I also accept that I am not fully capable of expressing all sides of this issue, which is also not my goal. My goal in this post is to look at Abramson’s poetic examination into Rodger’s language and how we as poets (and people) process trauma and tragedy through poetry.


Rarely do we get such a comprehensive view into the words of a killer. We are often left wondering what the motivation for a heinous crime could have been. Equally often, it seems, we are left covering the entire incident as purely a mental health issue and moving forward without investigating further. In the case of Elliot Rodger, we have various forms of media, specifically videos and text, from which to extrapolate and discuss his actions in Santa Barbara. What is simple here is the basic motivation: Rodger blamed women as a whole for his problems. Whatever mental health issues he had were exacerbated, it seems, by the company he kept, by how he viewed himself and his life. And he targeted women due to his own sense of entitlement towards sex and other intimacy.

Ultimately, Rodger’s actions have led to a discussion which we should have been having all along about gender and entitlement in our culture. Patriarchy hurts everyone and it seems that while Rodger’s anger, mental illness and other issues directly led to these events, the systemic views held up by much of society provided him the artifice by which to act. It is not one group or one person at fault here: it is the whole of society who must evaluate and respond to the cultural causes of this horrendous crime. Rodger found other people online who either introduced him to or reaffirmed his pre-existing ideas about how women somehow owed men their sexuality and bodies. While Rodger’s mental health issues caused the hyperbolic violence that took place, the various groups with which he associated provided the language and tone Rodger used in his various messages. That Rodger had mental health issues cannot – and should not – be denied. But nor should the cultural context in which his thoughts and actions appeared.

As people were just beginning to process this tragedy, Seth Abramson’s poem, published by Huffington Post, emerged to “remix” the words of Rodger into a poem to explore the nature of this tragedy via its linguistic attributes. Abramson, it seems, sees this work as a sort of “first responder” poem, the initial salvo into the discussion of Rodger’s language and motivations. However, the uproar caused by Abramson’s work has led to, at best, a murky response in which the simple posting of the poem is being examined versus the goal of the poem. At worst, Abramson has been referred to as opportunistic, taking advantage of the tragedy in Santa Barbara as a way of furthering his own career/web presence while displaying his own privilege via the poem and its location of publication.

Abramson’s poem raises a critical question: Is poetry really about “first response” capability? I do not believe it is, as I have written over the course of these trauma poetics posts. What process has Mr. Abramson gone through to understand Rodger’s motivations and emotions via his language within the few days between Rodger’s actions and Abramson’s publication of the poem? While the rest of the poetry community, along with the general public, is attempting to discuss the cultural issues which led to Rodger’s crime, Abramson is already posting a poem which attempts to use the killer’s language against itself.

The issue I hope I have been delving into in these posts is the role of poetry (and its exploration of language) in the processing of tragedy and trauma. I do not believe poetry is the first response but rather the last, the culmination of thought and experience at the point where it has settled into the mind. We must first take stock in tragedy, to try and understand the depth and reach of that tragedy and I question the idea of poets as first responders. We must begin to process tragedies and our emotional response to them before engaging in poetics to respond to them.

Poetry is, in part, a process of thinking through, a way of seeing all things around and boiling them into the main artifice of communication and expression. Language is not the oldest form of expression but is one which allows us to articulate our most complex thoughts, which is to say that when an event with complex grounding occurs.

As Abramson asks in his introduction “Can hateful words be turned against themselves and become, instead, a vehicle for amity and compassion?” I think for Abramson, this was an attempt at thinking through, of processing, but I believe there were several issues with his efforts:

1) His work came too soon, before we as a poetry community or we as a society could really even discuss the range of interrelated issues involved in Rodger’s thoughts, commentary and actions. For many, the tragedy in Santa Barbara brought the issues of sexism and misogyny into the public view for those who were generally ignorant of it. For Abramson’s poem to be published in such a public manner so quickly after the tragedy had occurred contributed to the reaction the work and its author received.

2) His poem does not truly attempt explore the issues at the heart of the mass murder and cultural significance surrounding it, perhaps as a result of his zeal to get the poem published quickly. The poem attempts to appropriate Rodger’s language but feels in reading as though there is no in-depth exploration of the cultural themes surrounding the events. As a result, the poem feels not only exploitive of tragedy but also seems, at points, to sympathize with Rodger’s views. I believe that Abramson’s rush to publish the poem in the midst of the tragedy led to a lack of seeming awareness of all these issues in the poem, leading to a negative response from many in the poetry community.

3) He did so while being Seth Abramson. Many in the poetry community seem to have negative feelings about him. This is not to say that the poem would have been praised had it been published by someone else but I believe that Abramson’s role in the poetry community did affect the response to his work. Also, it seems that not only the timing of the post as well as the venue in which it was published led to this response. A poem, normal publication of which would have been ignored by the public at large, was suddenly on Huffington Post and seemingly representative of a community which is also generally ignored. Was this the poem we wanted front and center in the wake of such an event? Even if Abramson’s goal was only to present his work, this was now the most visible poem in response to Rodger’s manifesto and “Elliot, you slay me/And I love you,” regardless of its attempt at empathizing with someone who was brought to this point by his mental health issues and the hatred of those with whom he found a sense of community, is not the sentiment anyone wants to see in a public space regardless of context.

I do believe Abramson was correct on this: poetry should be free to attempt dismantling ideas and events. I doubt there are many who would disagree with him on this front but the question remains as to whether or not his poem truly manages this. While I take Abramson at his word that he was not attempting to offend (though he says a poem has the right to offend, with which I agree), it seems the poem was not fully engaging with the situation. Abramson’s desire to be the voice of poetry in the public sphere seems to have collided with the need to be among the first to respond.

Abramson may say that my questioning of his timeliness is an attempt to rein poetry in and he is probably not wrong. However, I do believe that, in context of tragedy, poetry has an important role to play in processing and recovery.



Some Thoughts on Richard Blanco

Photo by Jennifer Trivedi

Last night, the President of Roger Williams University, where I am an adjunct, hosted Richard Blanco, the poet now famous for having read at President Obama's Second Inauguration. To Blanco's credit, he seems just as surprised as anyone that he was invited to read at such an event and he seems to have taken this as a mandate to speak for poetry to the American people. He is nearly a rockstar, invited to events everywhere and writing poems for various events and causes. He even showed his own face on a billboard promoting a cause he believes in. Strange to see a poet on a billboard.

Frankly, we, the American poetry community, need it, to an extent. No, I am not with Dana Gioia in that we should get back to poets being super important parts of American life but I do think we need someone who is willing to be the person who travels around showing that poetry in America is very much alive. For the most part, this is where we, in our creative writing programs, etc., run into issues. I think that poetry for most people is not just inaccessible, but something that have no desire to access even if time permitted. That is very unlikely to change, of course. It seems very likely to me that poetry will remain for poets in our society and that it will be hard to grow into the general reading public on our own.

And I am certainly not suggesting that poetry should be accessible for the sake of sales, etc. Poetry should be chaotic thought but I do feel there should be a way into that chaotic thought. I do not think that the poetry community does anything for language/writing or any community by being more available simply to be popular to the general population, which is unlikely to happen regardless. However, that does not mean that poetry should not have a way in and I believe Blanco is a perfectly interesting way into the world of poetry.

He did something last night which surprised me a bit: he did not just read poems, he gave a talk about himself, his experiences and, to an extent, the role that poetry has played in his life and the role he hopes poetry can play in the lives of others. I think this is really important as it seems much of the poetry community has deemed this beneath them- and maybe it is to a certain extent- but simply pointing out the role of poetry in modern society does not seem like something to be shunned and it certainly does not seem like we, as poets, should dismiss the non-poetry-reading-community for not immediately being inclined towards reading poetry without a way in.

I think fiction has a nice balance here. We read narratives from a very young age. Children's literature is all about creating, however simple, a narrative. Poetry is always going to be a step beyond that and we should not feel guilty for that but we should accept that there must be some way into the world of deeper reading that perhaps does not exist outside of the university setting, for better or for worse. And, again, perhaps it is perfectly fine the modern poetry has its space within academia but that does not mean there should be not attempt at all to take the various goals of contemporary writing beyond that public.

The crowd at RWU last night was interesting. It was advertised across the school and through the town of Bristol, RI and the surrounding community. Basically, beyond our own creative writing department, there was still a good crowd of folks who, more than likely, would never have seen a poetry event come along, much less attend such a thing. This is Blanco's power now, to bring people into the world of poets and poetry. From there, people are free to do what they like. As RWU's President said to me after Blanco's talk, now people have to choose what they want to do but having Blanco there gives people that choice. Maybe folks will read more poetry, maybe they'll never read a poem again- who knows, but now that option is there.

Blanco even said as much in his talk. For whatever reason, poetry (and a few other art forms) seem to turn people off very quickly. If you do not get one poem or one thing, it becomes immediately inaccessible and, I would argue, because there is no desire in American society to go further into anything that is not immediately accessible, people avoid it, often by dismissing it with that favorite word, "difficult."

When I spoke with Blanco after, I noted how tired he looked. All this is weighing down on him, I said to him. Not only does all of this keep him busy but he also feels he has a task in an attempting to get poetry back out of the classroom and into the hands of ordinary citizens. I mentioned to him that Jackie Robinson took it upon himself, after his years in baseball, to become an ambassador of sorts for Civil Rights in this country. He felt he was in a unique position to help the movement by speaking his opinion. This is not to say Blanco is in any way like Robinson (which he laughed at when I mentioned the idea) but like Robinson, attempting to be on the forefront of something could be very difficult, long-term, on him personally.

But perhaps the sacrifice is important. Maybe it is something that, because so few are willing to do it, must fall on him. He has been given a unique position among American poets to do something which we cannot, even if it is not something anyone would ask for. I think that while the folks who I consider my own cohort are doing interesting work, there should be someone saying that there is a role for poetry in American society. Maybe that will never happen- maybe it never SHOULD happen, but that does not mean there should not be someone saying it. Richard Blanco, for the moment, seems to be that person.

Maybe he is not the ideal candidate- I have not even discussed his work- but at the present time, he seems to have some kind of hold on the population at large and if poetry is what he is promoting, perhaps we should not be too quick to judge him for how he handles it all. (Honestly, how would any of us handle such a thing?) He has something most poets in this country never will, the ear of the public. Perhaps his opinions and thoughts will not land him on the cover of Time Magazine, but there are people who will give some thought to his comments. Is that not something we as a poetry community can at least be somewhat appreciative for, even if we do not agree 100% with all of it? Surely some will be unable to reconcile these things, but I think having someone who is quite concerned with the role of poetry in society having a place in the public sphere is not a bad thing.


Obsessed with a Sound

A very quick post:

Listen to these songs- listen specifically to the guitars:

Some of it for sure is the way the bass is played, not just the exact tone knob setting. Mills of R.E.M. plays with a pick for sure- unsure about the Shadowy Men from a Shadowy Planet bass player. Regardless, the guitars all sound incredibly similar to me- I'm unsure what the sound is. A style, surely, but also reminicent of Peter Buck's favorite guitarist (at least in the early days), Roger McGuinn. 

In "Stumble," Buck's guitar playing relies more on tiny arpeggios- it's the hallmark of his early sound for sure. 

I thought perhaps this "sound" I'm hearing had more to do with studio technology but listening to other music from the era, this is unlikely the case- it's what's being fed INTO the recording equipment that's making the difference. It's light- tinny, almost. In "Trail of Tears," there are definitely more full chords than in Buck's playing or the Kids in the Hall theme.