harold bloom on the fading american dream and the deepening american nightmare


I might have thought the American Dream had ended, but the election of Barack Obama makes a difference. He invoked our national dream in his victory speech, an important citation though edged by the ill omens of financial and economic disaster both at home and abroad (I write on 20 November, 2008).


Like so many potent social myths, the American Dream is devoid of clear meanings, whether in journalistic accounts or in academic analyses. The major American writers who have engaged the dream—Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Mark Twain, Henry James, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Hart Crane—have been aware of this haziness and of attendant ironies. And yet they have affirmed, however ambivalently, that it must be possible to have a nation in which all of us are free to develop our singularities into health, prosperity, and some measure of happiness in self-development and personal achievement. Call this Emerson’s Party of Hope, whose current prophet and leader is the still untested President-Elect Obama.


Let us call the Other Side the American Nightmare, from Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville through T.S. Eliot and Faulkner onto our varied contemporaries such as Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth. Between Faulkner and these came Nathanael West, Flannery O’Connor, and Ralph Ellison. Dreamers of nightmare realities and irrealities, these superb writers are not altogether in Emerson’s opposing camp, the Party of Memory because, except for Poe, Eliot and O’Connor, they shared the American freedom from dogma.


But they dwelled on our addiction to violence, endemic from Moby-Dick’s Captain Ahab through Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden, and on our constant involuntary parodying of hopes for a more humane life.


What are we to believe about our nature and destiny in the sea of history that has engulfed so many other nations? We make terrible blunders, of which the Iraqi War and our current financial panic are merely the most recent, and only rarely can they be mitigated. Our American Dream always is likelier to bring forth another Jay Gatsby than a reborn Huck Finn. Our innocence is difficult to distinguish from ignorance, a problematical theme throughout the novels and stories of Henry James, our strongest novelist even as Walt Whitman remains our more-than-major poet. What Whitman discerned (in Emerson’s wake) was the American Adam, unfallen and dazzling as the sun. Is that national myth sustained by the extraordinary rise of Barack Obama?


Eight years from now we may be able to answer that question. A country without a monarch and a hereditary nobility must find its heroes in the American Presidency, an absurd ground for such a search ever since the murder of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, almost a century and a half ago. Emerson’s Party of Hope trusts for a reversal, in the name of the American Dream.


—from The American Dream, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (2009)

credos: proust, eliot, blake, mccarthy


the method: t.s. eliot, “these fragments I have shored against my ruins . . .”  


One must never miss an opportunity of quoting things by others which are always more interesting than those one thinks up oneself.

— Marcel Proust, Selected Letters




the motive: william blake, “the marriage of heaven and hell”  


The judge wrote on and then he folded the ledger shut and laid it to one side and pressed his hands together and passed them down over his nose and mouth and placed them palm down on his knees. 


Whatever exists, he said. Whateverin creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent. 


He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth. 


What’s a suzerain?


A keeper. A keeper or overlord.


Why not say keeper then?


Because he is a special kind of keeper. A suzerain rules even where there are other rulers. His authority countermands local judgements.


Toadvine spat.


The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.


Toadvine sat with his boots crossed before the fire. No man can aquaint himself with everything on this earth, he said.


The judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.


I don’t see what that has to do with catchin birds.


The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos.


That would be a hell of a zoo.


The judge smiled. Yes, he said. Even so.


—Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West


jack spicer—”poems should echo & reecho against each other..they cannot live alone any more than we”


The City of Boston


The city of Boston is filled with frogheaded

flies and British policemen. The other day I saw

the corpse of Emily Dickinson floating up the

Charles River.


Sweet God, it is lonely to be dead. Sweet

God, is there any god to worship? God stands in

Boston like a public statue. Sweet God, is there

any God to swear love by? Or love—it is lonely,

is lonely, is lonely to be lonely in Boston.


Now Emily Dickinson is floating down the

Charles River like an Indian princess. Now

naked savages are climbing out of all the graveyards.

Now the Holy Ghost drips birdshit on

the nose of God. Now the whole thing stops.

Sweet God, poetry hates Boston.



By Jack Spicer, in the Spring/Summer issue of The Massachusetts Review. Spicer, the author of seven books, died in 1965 at the age of forty. Found among his papers, this poem was written circa 1956. My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer will be published next month by Wesleyan University Press.


—from Harper’s Magazine, July 2008


More Jack Spicer, from www.poemhunter.com:


Fifteen False Propositions Against God – Section XIII


Hush now baby don’t say a word

Mama’s going to buy you a mocking bird

The third

Joyful mystery.

The joy that descends on you when all the trees are cut down

and all the fountains polluted and you are still alive waiting

for an absent savior. The third

Joyful mystery.

If the mocking bird don’t sing

Mama’s going to buy you a diamond ring

The diamond ring is God, the mocking bird the Holy Ghost.

The third

Joyful mystery.

The joy that descends on you when all the trees are cut down

and all the fountains polluted and you are still alive waiting

for an absent savior.



Fifteen False Propositions Against God – Section XIV


If the diamond ring turns brass

Mama’s going to buy you a looking glass

Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams

going on a picnic together when they were all students at the

University of Pennsylvania

Now they are all over seventy and the absent baby

Is a mirror sheltering their image.



For Mac


A dead starfish on a beach

He has five branches

Representing the five senses

Representing the jokes we did not tell each other

Call the earth flat

Call other people human

But let this creature lie

Flat upon our senses

Like a love

Prefigured in the sea

That died.

And went to water

All the oceans

Of emotion. All the oceans of emotion

are full of such ffish


Is this dead one of such importance?



Thing Language


This ocean, humiliating in its disguises

Tougher than anything.

No one listens to poetry. The ocean

Does not mean to be listened to. A drop

Or crash of water. It means



Is bread and butter

Pepper and salt. The death

That young men hope for. Aimlessly

It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No

One listens to poetry.



A Red Wheelbarrow


Rest and look at this goddamned wheelbarrow. Whatever

It is. Dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not

For their significance.

For their significant. For being human

The signs escape you. You, who aren’t very bright

Are a signal for them. Not,

I mean, the dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not

Their significance.

And yet more Jack Spicer, from http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/spicer:


A Postscript to the Berkeley Renaissance


What have I lost? When shall I start to sing
A loud and idiotic song that makes
The heart rise frightened into poetry
Like birds disturbed?

I was a singer once. I sang that song.
I saw the thousands of bewildered birds
Breaking their cover into poetry
Up from the heart.

What have I lost? We lived in forests then,
Naked as jaybirds in the ever-real,
Eating our toasted buns and catching flies,
And sometimes angels, with our hooting tongues.

I was a singer once. In distant trees
We made the forests ring with sacred noise
Of gods and bears and swans and sodomy,
And no one but a bird could hear our voice.

What have I lost? The trees were full of birds.
We sat there drinking at the sour wine
In gallon bottles. Shouting song
Until the hunters came.

I was a singer once, bird-ignorant.
Time with a gun said, "Stop,
Find other forests. Teach the innocent."
God got another and a third
Birdlimed in Eloquence.

What have I lost? At night my hooting tongue,
Naked of feathers and of softening years,
Sings through the mirror at me like a whippoorwill
And then I cannot sleep.

"I was a singer once," it sings.
"I sing the song that every captured tongue
Sang once when free and wants again to sing.
But I can sing no song I have not sung."

What have I lost? Spook singer, hold your tongue.
I sing a newer song no ghost-bird sings.
My tongue is sharpened on the iron’s edge.
Canaries need no trees. They have their cage.


The Unvert Manifesto and Other Papers Found in the Rare Book Room of the Boston Public Library in the Handwriting of Oliver Charming.  by S.


The Unvert Manifesto

1.      An unvert is neither an invert or an outvert, a pervert or a convert, an introvert or a retrovert. An unvert chooses to have no place to turn.

2.      One should always masturbate on street corners.

3.      Unversion is the attempt to make the sexual act as rare as a rosepetal. It consists of linking the sexual with the greatest cosmic force in the universe  Nonsense, or as we prefer to call it, MERTZ.

4.      Sex should be a frightening experience like a dirty joke or an angel.

5.      Dirty jokes and angels should be frightening experiences.

6.      An unvert must not be homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or autosexual. He must be metasexual. He must enjoy going to bed with his own tears.

7.      Mertz!

8.      All the universe is laughing at you.

9.      Poetry, painting, and cocksucking are all attempts of the unvert to make God laugh.

10. The larger the Dada, the bigger the hole.

11. Sidney Mertz was the only man ever arrested for drunken driving of a steam locomotive. He is now the bartender of the American Legion bar in Jackson, Wyoming.

12. Jews and Negros are not allowed to be unverts. The Jew will never understand unversion and the Negro understands it too well.

13. An unvert loves only other unverts. He will, however, consent to perform an act of unversion with almost anything except lovers and mountain lions.

14. God loves God.

15. Mertz must be applied to sex. People must learn to laugh into each other’s gonads.

16. God is an unvert.

17. Sex without love is better than love without sex. Sex without Mertz is never better than Mertz without sex. Nonsense is an act of friendship.

18. The larger the Dada, the bigger the hole.

19. Nonsense, Mertz, Dada, and God all go to the same nightclubs.

20. So does Graham Macarel.


Excerpts from Oliver Charming’s Diary


October 31, 1953:
    "I must unvent someone named Graham Macarel. He should be about seventeen or eighteen and have a large Dada. I can use him as the hero and victim of my Mertzcycle . . ."

November 5, 1953:
    "Laughed all day. The elements of imagination are exhausting as Hell."

November 23, 1953:
    "It was more successful than I expected. He is beginning to become mythical. I saw him today and he told me that he is taking a course in his art school in which he has to clip examples of racial prejudice from Tarot cards and give their exact date. His art school’s name is the California School of Fine Flowers. His teacher’s name is S. We talked for awhile and I am already beginning to destroy his universe. . . . Method is everything."

December 1, 1953:
    "Love must only be applied at the wrong time and in the wrong place. It must be thrown at the unsuspecting like a custard pie made of poison . . . Nothing destroys Mertz more than custom. Nothing destroys it less than treason."

December 7, 1953:
    "I return to Graham Macarel. (Note – I must be sure to call him Mac. Graham reminds the uninformed imagination of crackers.) He has become a combination of a Boy Scout and a depth charge. He appeals to the primitive sources of nonsense and despair.
    I suspect that his teacher, S., is secretly an unvert  or, at least a spoiled unvert. Something is going on between S. and history. I wonder if Mac realizes that an unvert is an agent of Kubla Khan."

December 9, 1953:
    "’An unvert is an angel of Kubla Khan.’  that’s what Mac said to me last night in the men’s room of the Palace Hotel. At the time he said it he was . . . which is certainly Dada if not Mertz."

December 10, 1953:
    ". . . suspects . . ."

December 18, 1953:
    "It is Christmas vacation at the California School of Fine Flowers. S. was in the bars last night, very drunk. I think he is planning to unvert somebody."

December 19, 1953:
    "I had a conversation with S. late last night. He was again very drunk. ‘Why did you have to invent Graham Macarel?’ he asked me angrily.
    ‘I thought it would be good for your poetry,’ I answered.
    ‘Why didn’t you invent syphilis instead,’ he asked contemptuously. So yesterday I invented syphilis. Today I am going to . . ."

December 22, 1953:
    "S. is in Los Angeles."

December 23, 1953:
    "To appear as human among homosexuals and to appear as divine among heterosexuals . . ."

December 24, 1953:
    "Nobody remains in this city and I have done all my Christmas shopping.
    The Dada in painting is not Duchamp. The Dada in poetry is not Breton. The Dada in sex is not De Sade. All these men were too obsessed with the mechanism of their subject. A crime against nature must also be a crime against art. A crime against art must also be a crime against nature. All beauty is at continuous war with God."

December 25, 1953:
    "Merry Christmas, Graham Macarel."

December 26, 1953:
    "It continually amazes the unprejudiced Mertzian observer that even the people who struggle most against the limits of art are content to have sex in ordinary academic ways, as if they and their bed-partners were nineteenth-century paintings. Or, worse, they will change the point of view (top becomes bottom, male becomes female, etc. etc.) and think, like the magic realists that they are, that they have changed something.
    Everybody is guilty of this – from Cocteau to Beethoven."

December 28, 1953:
    "A sailor asked me last night what the unvert thought of Kinsey. I told him that we held that Kinsey was a valuable evidence of the boredom of un-unverted sex  that ordinary sex had become so monotonous that it had become statistical like farm income or rolling stock totals. I told him that Kinsey was the Zola preparing the way for the new Lautréamont.
    It is remarkable how even science fiction has developed no new attitudes toward sex. The vacant interstellar spaces are filled with exactly the same bedrooms the rocketships left behind. It is only the unvert who dares to speak Martian in bed. I wonder if Kierkegaard had wet dreams."

December 29, 1953:
    "How The Zen Masters Taught Sex To Their Disciples – such a book would be the most useful book a man could publish. Sex is a metaphysical experience. Zen taught that man can only reach the metaphysical by way of the absurd. No, absurd is the wrong word. What is the Chinese for shaggy-dog story?
    The book should be illustrated pornographically but the general style of Mad Comics. It should have a blue cover."

December 30, 1953:
    "S. is in town again. I saw him at the Black Cat. He looked confused at all the lack of excitement around him, as if he believed that a holiday was like a snowstorm and people should notice it.
    We began discussing homosexuality. I, by bringing in subtle pieces of unvert propganda, and he, embarrassed and overintellectual as if he thought, or rather hoped, that I was trying to seduce him."
    ‘We homosexuals are the only minority group that completely lacks any vestige of a separate cultural heritage. We have no songs, no folklore, even our customs are borrowed from our upper-middleclass mothers’, he said."
    The trouble with S. is that he doesn’t understand Martian. I must tell him about the time . . ."

December 31, 1953:
    "I rebel against the tyrrany of the calendar."

January 1, 1954:
    "My analyst is teaching me French."

January 2, 1954:
    "S. says that it is inconsistent for an unvert to have a psychiatrist. He does not understand unversion. The relationship between the analyst and the patient is the firmest and most hallowed, if the most conventional, sexual relationship in the modern world. This is precisely why it must be shaken. It is our task to experience and unvert all sexual relationships."

January 3, 1954:
    "Sometimes, in moments of depression, I think that all this talk of Dada and Mertz is merely the reaction of the unsuccessful cocksucker or artsucker who doesn’t understand beauty when it offers itself to him. Witness Western civilization or the bar last night . . ."

January 4, 1954:
    "Now that I have Graham Macarel, S., and a psychiatrist, all that I need is an angel. One cannot, however, safely invent an angel . . . Lot was the last person to safely invent an angel. He was bored with his lover, with their children, and with all the inhabitants of the immense and sandy Turkish bath that they were living in . . . He invented an angel and then everybody had to kill him . . . Everybody had to kill him not because the angel was as dangerous as a hydrogen bomb (which he was) and not because the angel was beautiful as a Florida hurricane (which he was), but because the angel was a stranger and it is always the habit of Jews and homosexuals to kill strangers . . . They almost caught the angel once in Lot’s chimney, and a sailor once managed to catch hold of its groin as it was disappearing into a broom-closet, but soon fire and brimstone were descending on the town and Lot was walking with his lover along a deserted road on the first range of foothills carrying a packed suitcase . . . The lover looked backwards, of course, to make sure that the angel was not following them and was immediately turned into a life-sized salt statue. It is very difficult to suck the cock of a life-sized salt statue or to sample the delight of sodomy with a pillar . . . Lot left him there and trudged onward alone, with an angel on his back.
    I must take warning from this. There are some inventions even sex does not make necessary."

January 5, 1954:
    "No angel as yet. I wonder if I could steal one. By a bit of clever propaganda I have arranged that Mac will have to report on angels to his history class. This should bring things into focus.
    Mac asked me about angels yesterday  whether I thought they really existed, what they did in bed, etc. etc. I told him that very few people under twenty-five had angels at all. That they were like a kind of combination of Siamese cats and syphilis and for him not to worry if they occasionally tugged at his pubic hairs. He was still uncertain: ‘How can I find any chronology in it?’ he asked plaintively."

January 6, 1954:
    "There is a morning when it rains in the corner of everybody’s bedroom."

January 7, 1954:
    "My psychiatrist, Robert Berg, considers that it is his duty to unvent angels. It must be understood that unvention is as different from unversion as psychoanalysis is from poetry."

January 9, 1954:
    "Mac tells me that he saw an angel resting in a tree above his art school. This must be the angel we have been waiting for."

January 10, 1954:
    "I have seen it too. It is a bearded angel, small as a bird, and answers to the name of Heurtebise. S., being what he is, pretends not to believe and says that it is only an owl or some unlucky night creature. He says that he is sorry for it."

January 11, 1954:
    "The angel keeps screaching in the tree. It is behaving more and more like a bird. We are doing something wrong . . . Perhaps it isn’t our angel."

January 12, 1954:
    "I am gradually able to have the most Mertzian sexual…


Three Marxist Essays


Homosexuality and Marxism


There should be no rules for this but it should be
simultaneous if at all.
  Homosexuality is essentially being alone. Which is
a fight against the capitalist bosses who do not want
us to be alone. Alone we are dangerous.
  Our dissatisfaction could ruin America. Our love
could ruin the universe if we let it.
  If we let our love flower into the true revolution
we will be swamped with offers for beds.



The Jets and Marxism


  The jets hate politics. They grew up in fat cat society
that didn’t even have a depression or a war in it. They
are against capital punishment.
  They really couldn’t care less. They wear switch-blade
knives tied with ribbons. They know that which runs
this country is an IBM machine connected to an IBM
machine. They never think of using their knives against
its aluminum casing.
  A League Against Youth and Fascism should be formed
immediately by our Party. They are our guests. They are


The Jets and Homosexuality


  Once in the golden dawn of homosexuality there was
a philosopher who gave the formula for a new society
"from each, according to his ability, to each according
to his need."
  This formula appears in the New Testament  the
parable of the fig tree  and elsewhere.
  To continue the argument is fruitless.



Second letter to Federico Garcia Lorca

Dear Lorca,

When I translate one of your poems and I come across words I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right. A really perfect poem (no one yet has written one) could be perfectly translated by a person who did not know one word of the language it was written in. A really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.

It is very difficult. We want to transfer the immediate object, the immediate emotion to the poem and yet the immediate always has hundreds of its own words clinging to it, short-leved and tenacious as barnacles. And it is wrong to scrape them off and substitute others. A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer. The words around the immediate shrivel and decay like flesh around the body. No mummy-sheet of tradition can be used to stop the process. Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it.

I yell "Shit" down a cliff at the ocean. Even in my lifetime the immediacy of that word will fad. It will be dead as "Alas." But if I put the real cliff and the real ocean into the poem, the word "Shit" will ride along with them, travel the time-machine until cliffs and oceans disappear.

Most of my friends like words too well. They set them under the blinding light of the poem and try to extract every possible connotation from each of them, every temporary pun, every direct or indirect connection – as if a word could become an object by mere addition of consequences. Others pick up words from the streets, from their bars, from their offices and display them proudly in their poems as if they were shouting, "See what I have collected from the American language. Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!" What does one do with all this crap?

Words are what sticks to the real.We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what we hold on with, nothing else. They are as valuable in themselves as rope with nothing to be tied to.

I repeat  the perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.




First Letter (from Admonitions)


Dear Joe,

Some time ago I would have thought that writing notes on particular poems would either be a confession that the poems were totally inadequate (a sort of patch put on a leaky tire) or an equally humiliating confession that the writer was more interested in the terrestrial mechanics of criticism than the celestial mechanics of poetry  in either case that the effort belonged to the garage or stable rather than to the Muse.

Muses do exist, but now I know that they are not afraid to dirty their hands with explication  that they are patient with truth and commentary as long as it doesn’t get into the poem, that they whisper (if you let yourself really hear them), "Talk all you want, baby, but then let’s go to bed."

This sexual metaphor brings me to the first problem. In these poems the obscene (in word and concept) is not used, as is common, for the sake of intensity, but rather as a kind of rhythm as the tip-tap of the branches throughout the dream of Finnegans Wake or, to make the analogy even more mysterious to you, a cheering section at a particularly exciting football game. It is precisely because the obscenity is unnecessary that I use it, as I could have used any disturbance, as I could have used anything (remember the beat in jazz) which is regular and beside the point.

The point. But what, you will be too polite to ask me, is the point? Are not these poems all things to all men, like Rorschach ink blots or whores? Are they anything better than a kind of mirror?

In themselves, no. Each one of them is a mirror, dedicated to the person that I particularly want to look into it. But mirrors can be arranged. The frightening hall of mirrors in a fun house is universal beyond each particular reflection.

This letter is to you because you are my publisher and because the poem I wrote for you gives the most distorted reflection in the whole promenade. Mirror makers know the secret – one does not make a mirror to resemble a person, one brings a person to the mirror.




Second Letter (from Admonitions)


Dear Robin,

Enclosed you find the first of the publications of White Rabbit Press. The second will be much handsomer.

You are right that I don’t now need your criticisms of individual poems. But I still want them. It’s probably from old habit – but it’s an awfully old habit. Halfway through After Lorca I discovered that I was writing a book instead of a series of poems and individual criticism by anyone suddenly became less important. This is true of my Admonitions which I will send you when complete. (I have eight of them already and there will probably be fourteen including, of course, this letter.)

The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us  not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never by fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem. This is where we were wrong and he was right, but he complicated things for us by saying that there is no such thing as good or bad poetry. There is – but not in relation to a single poem. There is really no single poem.

That is why all my stuff from the past (except the Elegies and Troilus) looks foul to me. The poems belong nowhere. They are one night stands filled (the best of them) with their own emotions, but pointing nowhere, as meaningless as sex in a Turkish bath. It was not my anger or my frustration that got in the way of my poetry but the fact that I viewed each anger and each frustration as unique something to be converted into poetry as one would exchange foreign money. I learned this from the English Department (and from the English Department of the spirit that great quagmire that lurks at the bottom of all of us) and it ruined ten years of my poetry. Look at those other poems. Admire them if you like. They are beautiful but dumb.

Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.

So don’t send the box of old poetry to Don Allen. Burn it or rather open it with Don and cry over the possible books that were buried in it  the Songs Against Apollo, the Gallery of Gorgeous Gods, the Drinking Songs  all incomplete, all abortive – all incomplete, all abortive because I thought, like all abortionists, that what is not perfect had no real right to live.

Things fit together. We knew that  it is the principle of magic. Two inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence. This is true of poems too. A poem is nver to be judged by itself alone. A poem is never by itself alone.

This is the most important letter that you have ever received.




"This ocean, humiliating in its disguises"


This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.



Sporting Life


The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios
     don’t develop scar-tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a
     transistor, which most souls are, the battery or diagram
     burns out replacable or not replacable, but not like that
     punchdrunk fighter in a bar. The poet

Takes too many messages. The right to the ear that floored him
     in New Jersey. The right to say that he stood six rounds with
     a champion.

Then they sell beer or go on sporting commissions, or, if the
     scar tissue is too heavy, demonstrate in a bar where the
     invisible champions might not have hit him. Too many of

The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
     counterpunching radio.

And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even
     know they are champions.


Six Poems for Poetry Chicago (poems #1-4)




"Limon tree very pretty
And the limon flower is sweet
But the fruit of the poor lemon
Is impossible to eat"
In Riverside we saved the oranges first (by smudging) and left
     the lemons last to fed for themselves. They didn’t usually
A no good crop. Smudge-pots
Didn’t rouse them. The music
Is right though. The lemon tree
Could branch off into real magic. Each flower in place. We
Were sickened by the old lemon.




Pieces of the past arising out of the rubble. Which evokes Eliot
     and then evokes Suspicion. Ghosts all of them. Doers of no
The past around us is deeper than.
Present events defy us, the past
Has no such scruples. No funeral processions for him. He died
     in agony. The cock under the thumb.
Rest us as corpses
We poets
Vain words.
For a funeral (as I live and breathe and speak)
Of good
And impossible




In the far, fat Vietnamese jungles nothing grows.
In Guadacanal nothing grew but a kind of shrubbery that was
     like the bar-conversation of your best best friend who was
     not able to talk.
Sheets to the wind. No
Wind being present.
Lifeboats being present. A jungle
Can’t use life-boats. Dead
From whatever bullets the snipers were. Each
Side of themselves. Safe-
Ly delivered.



The rind (also called the skin) of the lemon is difficult to
It goes around itself in an oval quite unlike the orange which, as
     anyone can tell, is a fruit easily to be eaten.
It can be crushed into all sorts of extracts which are
     still not lemons. Oranges have no such fate. They’re pretty
     much the same as they were. Culls become frozen orange
     juice. The best oranges are eaten.
It’s the shape of the lemon, I guess that causes trouble. It’s
     ovalness, it’s rind. This is where my love, somehow, stops. 

el hombre invisible: hard, derisive, inventive, free, funny, serious, poetic, indelibly American

Joan Didion reads The Soft Machine


There sometimes seems a peculiar irrelevance about what is claimed for William S. Burroughs, both by those who admire him and those who do not; the insistent amorphousness of his books encourages the reader to take from them pretty much exactly what he brought to them. Burroughs has been read as a pamphleteer for narcotics reform. He has been read as a parabolist of the highest order. He has been read as a pornographer and he has been read as a prophet of the apocalypse. The Naked Lunch I read first on a beach in the Caribbean and the Naked Lunch I reread a few weeks ago in a hospital in Santa Monica, the book I read once when I was unhappy and again when I was not, did not seem in any sense the same book; to anyone who finds Burroughs readable at all, he is remarkably rereadable, if only because he is remarkably unmemorable. There are no “stories” to wear thin, no “characters” of whom one might tire. We are presented only with the fragmented record of certain fantasies, and our response to that record depends a good deal upon our own fantasies at the moment; in itself, a book by William Burroughs has about as much intrinsic “meaning” as the actual inkblot in a Rorschach test.


Nonetheless Burroughs is read for “meaning,” for we tend to be uneasy in this country until we can draw from an imaginative work some immediate social application. À la Recherche du temps perdu as precursor to the Wolfenden Report, Emma Bovary as victim of the Feminine Mystique. And, on another level, William Burroughs as “satirist,” that slipshod catch-all category for anyone who seems unconventional and modish. Burroughs is by no means successful as a “satirist” or as an “allegorist”; both satire and allegory depend upon strict control of the material, and to talk about Burroughs in that vein leads only into cul-de-sacs where Donald Malcolm can complain querulously that if Mr. Burroughs is satirizing capital punishment then Mr. Burroughs must be unaware that the trend on this issue is toward liberalization.


So it goes. First the insistence upon some fairly conventional “meaning,” then the rush to the barricades. Either Burroughs is a prophet or Burroughs is a fraud. Either he must be the “greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift” (Jack Kerouac) or he must be a fabricator of “merest trash” (John Wain). In this stampede to first discern the “message” and then take a stand on it, Burroughs’ limited but very real virtues tend to be overlooked. In a quite literal sense with Burroughs, the medium is the message: the point is not what the voice says but the voice itself, a voice so direct and original and versatile as to disarm close scrutiny of what it is saying. Burroughs is less a writer than a “sound,” and to listen to the lyric may be to miss the beat.


Consider The Soft Machine. Burroughs is uninfected by any trace of humanist sentimentality, and his imagery is that of the most corrosive nightmare, obscene, specifically homosexual, casually savage, peopled by androgynous mutations. Flesh is not flesh but “biologic material,” undifferentiated tissue which metamorphoses, dissolves into mucus, sloughs off, passes into other vessels. Hot crabs hatch out of human spines; police files spurt out bone meal. Although it is easy to read The Soft Machine as a parable of technological suicide, a kind of hallucinatory On the Beach, that reading is not going to get us very far, because Burroughs as a dreamer of didactic dreams is not only distinctly hit-and-miss but quite unremarkable, in point of fact Victorian. It has been some years, after all, since we first heard that melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, first stood upon the darkling plain of technology. Read for any such conventional meaning, The Soft Machine has only the dulling effect of a migraine attack, after pain and nausea and unwanted images have battered the nerve synapses until all connections are lost. For the Burroughs repetitiveness blunts response. The particular Burroughs preoccupations atrophy rather than engage the imagination. Ah well, one thinks, eyes glazing, fingers riffling the pages, another orgiastic hanging, all possible switches. It is difficult even to read the book sequentially; to imagine that one will be able to put the book down when the telephone rings and find one’s place a few minutes later is sheer bravura.


In fact the point is not to read the book at all, but somehow to hear the voice in it. The voice in The Soft Machine is talking about time. Some of the book is mock nostalgia, and the title, whatever else it means, seems as well to be a play upon The Time Machine. The voice roves back in time through Mexico, Panama, the Mayan Empire, back through a landscape of pervasive corruption. One city in particular appears and reappears in explicit and extraordinary details: a port city, “stuck in water hyacinths and banana rafts,” a place where jungle has overgrown the parks and diseased armadillos live in the deserted kiosks. Candiru infest the swimming pools; albinos blink in the sun. Although the city is in the here and now, it is terrorized by the Vagrant Ball Players, who seem to have come forward in time from the Mayan period. The Civil Guard tries to placate the Vagrant Ball Players, for they “can sound a Hey Rube Switch brings a million adolescents shattering the customs barriers and frontiers of time, swinging out of the jungle with Tarzan cries, crash landing perilous tin planes and rockets.”


The voice moves not only back but ahead in time, to what seems to be the end of the world. There is an ambiguity here; the last few men left on earth are clearly the survivors of some disaster, but they are also just assuming human shape, just rising from the slime. In short, what the voice in The Soft Machine is doing is giving an hallucinatory reading to Eliot’s Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end” and “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past.”


This is by no means unintentional. Eliot’s is one of the rhythms into which the voice in The Soft Machine slips deliberately and frequently, sometimes ironically and sometimes not. Sometimes the voice is not Eliot but Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain: “Meanwhile an angle comes dripping down and forms a stalactite in my brain.” Sometimes it is the voice of the Hearst Task Force: “I have just returned from a thousand year time trip and I am here to tell you what I saw… It is the new frontier and only the adventurous need apply—But it belongs to anyone with the courage and know-how to enter—It belongs to you.” Sometimes the voice slips into the peculiar rhythms of the hustler, sometimes into the ritualized diction of blue movies. The voice rattles off elliptical allusions, throws away joke after outrageous joke, shifts gear in mid-sentence, never falters.


It is precisely this voice—complex, subtle, allusive—that is the fine thing about The Soft Machine and about Burroughs. It is hard, derisive, inventive, free, funny, serious, poetic, indelibly American, a voice in which one hears transistor radios and old movies and all the cliches and all the cons and all the newspapers, all the peculiar optimism, all the failure. Against that voice, those of the younger “satirical” or “black” novelists sound self-conscious and faked; it is the voice of a natural, and what it is saying is in no sense the point.


Joan Didion, "Wired for Shock Treatments," Bookweek, 27 March 1966, p 2-3.

The Soft Machine by bradallen.